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Best practices for communicating on challenging topics

Have you ever been asked to communicate about something that people need to know, but don’t want to hear?

It can be one of the many challenging situations we find ourselves in – having to communicate with citizens about an unfortunate circumstance, tragedy or epidemic.

In government, these are topics like homelessness, suicide prevention, economic downturns, criminal activity or drug addiction. These are sensitive subjects, and it can be daunting to be asked to develop entire campaigns around them.

But as communicators, we know that while these topics are sensitive, the information we have can greatly impact people’s lives if conveyed in the right way, and – in some cases – could even save lives.

So what are best practices for ensuring we’re connecting in effective ways?

Research more than ever

It may seem obvious, but research in challenging situations is often the most important first step to communicating effectively. As subject matter experts, we know what it’s like to dig for the facts. But when it comes to sensitive subject matter, knowing what information you need can be a challenge.

There may be uncertainties that only a few people know. In the case of a natural disaster, for example, it can be hard to get information detailing the storm because the area has been evacuated. In the case of opioid addiction, medical experts at national organisations may not be the most accessible and a local university contact may be the better resource for information.

Seeking the right resources or experts is critical to communicating on challenging topics, so it’s important to ask the right questions and take the time to find the right answers. Questions like:

  • Who has access to the information I’m looking for?
  • Are my sources credible?
  • What details are needed in order to communicate in an informed way?

While researching, focus on the facts only. It’s very important to head into a challenging topic with a neutral perspective. The most dangerous thing you can do when communicating on a difficult situation is to editorialise or make predictions on the outcome.


It’s rare that a difficult topic touches only one agency or stakeholder group. As part of the information-gathering phase, you may find yourself reaching out to others for information. Gather as many experts or stakeholders around you as you can.

In some cases, this might even include citizens. For a local government working to address an increase of crime in its community, holding a public meeting where citizens can share experiences may be a great way to intake crucial information.

In other cases, it might be best to formalise a small group that meets regularly to identify key messages and plan ahead. In every instance, it’s crucial to identify the right people to collaborate with on challenging topics.

Be empathetic

Before communicating, insert empathy into your messaging. Empathy is an awareness or ability to understand another person’s feelings. Especially in communicating on challenging topics, it’s important to put yourself in your audience’s shoes. How will they feel when reading the information you’re creating?

You can insert empathy by:

  • Acknowledging how your audience might be feeling (confused, lost, angry, etc.)
  • Validating your audience’s feelings by using phrases like “we understand” or “we value your input.”
  • Explaining your positive intent. This could be “In an effort to reduce bullying on social media, we want to provide you with tips on internet safety.”

Here is a recent example:


Assess your communications tools

The tools you use to communicate can be just as important as the message itself – how are you communicating with your audience? Are your current communication tools ensuring you’re reaching the right people?

Email: When hurricane season was approaching, the Florida Department of Children & Family Services assessed the ways they were connecting with families on how to access food and other resources in the critical times following hurricanes. By using GovDelivery’s communications platform, they increased their email subscribers from 2,600 to over 19,000 in order to maximise their impact when hurricanes hit.

Text messaging: Philadelphia’s Mayor’s Office of Reintegration Services, or RISE, needed a platform that would help Philadelphia’s ex-offenders get back on their feet. In order to increase attendance at classes and workshops, RISE used text messaging to send reminders and increase engagement in its programmes by 30 percent.

Social media: When evacuations are ordered due to weather, or there is an Amber Alert for a missing child in your neighbourhood, social media and text messaging are highly effective at communicating and working toward resolving a difficult situation.


But social media may not be the right platform in every case. For example, those who may contemplating suicide may not want to follow a suicide prevention account because of social stigma.

This is one of the many reasons email and text messaging can be great platforms for communicating on challenging topics. Email communication is the most effective way of connecting with large audiences on a regular basis, and text messaging has the highest level of engagement over any other platform. For more information on how reach can impact your outcomes, see this recent blog post.

Start with the necessary details

Once you have the facts that are necessary to communicate, and you’ve identified that the situation is serious enough that there is a need to inform the public, it’s time to connect with your audience.

It might be valuable to start by letting your audience know you are assessing the situation, and will communicate again when you have more details.

In other times, it’s important to prepare your audience with necessary details that may be relevant if the situation progresses.

Here is a recent example from the US Federal Emergency Management Aagency that would provide evacuation routes if Hurricane Matthew progressed:


If time is on your side, develop a communications plan on major developments. Identify when the pivot points are: “If_____ happens, we’ll communicate _____.” This will help you stay ahead of the communications needs and be prepared for different scenarios.

When it comes to challenging topics, it can be easier to not communicate at all. You may worry that you will be promoting the problem instead of working to find a solution. But in today’s world, digital communications have the power to transform lives for the better. When the public is more informed about a challenging topic, they are able to make decisions that contribute to stronger communities.

Communicating bad or unfortunate news is never easy, but we hope that these best practices will help you. Do you have examples of how your agency navigated a challenging circumstance? Let us know at