Guides & Advice

How To Write About Sensitive Subjects

By Chris Worthington / July 17th 2015

Whether you write in-house for an established brand or for a content marketing agency, at some point you’ll find yourself faced with a topic that makes your fingers hover over the keyboard for quite some time.

The last thing a content writer wants to do is upset or inadvertently insult a reader, or even at the other end of the scale, tiptoe around difficult topics to the point where an article becomes patronising, pointless or worthy of ridicule. For example, we have clients for whom we produce content about very serious health issues, crippling debt situations, and tricky legal matters, which all need to be handled sensitively.

You need to be sympathetic, not only on grounds of good taste but also to uphold the reputation of a client and the integrity of a brand. Personally speaking, I’m fortunate to be part of a team – collaboratively, we discuss issues and test our approaches to sensitive topics. Over time we’ve developed processes that ensure that the sensitive content we’re producing is fit for purpose.

 1. The heart of the matter

Sensitive topics touch very personal issues. The key is to focus on a specific matter; concentrating your attention on one or two and writing authoritatively about them will be much easier (on you and the reader) than trying to provide a brief overview. Specificity gives you a clearer focus to your writing; it also helps with content marketing strategy, as a wider topic can be broken down into several pieces of content to form a campaign in the long term.

Summary

  • Research is crucial
  • Be aware of wider issues
  • Avoid an overview it can sometimes sound dismissive
  • Focus on specifics
  • Don’t generalise or stereotype
  • Don’t be judgemental or patronising
  • Facts will form the core of your content

 2. Factual accuracy and compliance

Topics that need careful handling are often supported by charities, government departments and independent organisations, which provide valuable information and guidance of their own. They are a good source of research when creating content, helping to ensure accuracy, which is absolutely crucial.

Any information you refer to should be sourced and backed up with concrete fact. Compliance is important too; you can run into problems if anything you say is unfounded or simply not true. Errors or woolliness can make your content look uninformed or at its worst, irresponsible. Link back to authoritative sources where possible.

Summary

  • Use facts and data
  • Write clearly
  • Check any potential compliance issues
  • Link back to authoritative sources where possible

 3. Matters of taste and calls to action

Good content marketing tactics don’t treat an article as an opportunity to sell; this is even more so when dealing with a sensitive topic. Someone googling the effects of brain injury might find a really interesting article via organic search results that puts a brand into a good light – but if the call to action is a clumsy sales attempt, the engagement may be wasted.

Careful consideration is also required if your strategy includes newsjacking; this is a way of aligning a brand message to current news stories or trending articles from other sources, but again if it’s clumsily executed or inappropriate then you will turn your audience off.  We have abandoned many such ideas after editorial discussions, for example if we felt that a well-meaning newsjack might be perceived as a cheap ride on the coat-tails of someone’s misfortune.

Summary

  • Know when to avoid a topic/piece of news
  • Plan content meticulously if you decide to use a news story
  • Compliance issues still apply when newsjacking – research and get the facts

The bottom line is that the content you create can yield positive results when helping to build brand authority – see our case studies on just how successful it can be – but the fact that real people are interacting with your work should remain your core motivation.