Look at any form of media, and you’ll see organizations tackling a growing number of social issues, ranging from #metoo, LGBTQ+, suicide, opioid and fentanyl overdoses, or Roe v. Wade. They are important – critical, even – to discuss, yet also sensitive and possibly triggering. Still, associations are at the forefront of digging deep into these and other topics, helping frame conversations their members crave. As creative partners to many of these associations, we at GRAPHEK have an enviable seat at the table when it comes to crafting some of the most compelling designs to support hard conversations.

But how does one go about covering some of our society’s toughest topics in a thoughtful, sensitive, and inclusive way? In short, it’s not easy, and the “right” solution is rarely found on the first try. But it’s absolutely worth the journey.

The most important part of any such effort is an open and empathetic mind during the initial brainstorm, the ability to recognize when verbiage or visuals aren’t hitting quite right, and the willingness to change course and reassess if you discover there’s a better way to communicate a point.

Not too long ago, for example, we were working with the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) on a cover story focused on several bills being presented that would have massive negative repercussions on transgender people if passed. We started with a concept of equality via a positive and cohesive illustration of people in their truest human forms, with a soft and soothing color palette. It reflected safety and welcoming inclusiveness, and it was beautiful. It wasn’t quite right, though. This wasn’t a positive moment for the nonbinary community; this was a moment to show their struggle, along with their need to fight and advocate for their rights. It was our opportunity to help the cisgender population better understand this community’s experience and how these bills – if they became law – could crush freedoms. We started over – with additional collaboration from new NASW staff and member voices – and landed on a far stronger image of people fighting to hold up a Pride flag, with looks of anguish, determination, and power on their faces. The flag, not fully erect, speaks to the truth that their fight is not yet over.

On the writing side of the table, the initial brainstorm is similarly key, especially as it relates to choosing a topic and selecting experts to interview and review. At NASW, Managing Editor Laetitia Clayton pointed out,

“I can’t think of a taboo topic for us, since as social workers, handling sensitive topics is part of our DNA. Our members work in courts, prisons, schools, child welfare, and other areas. Still, we have a very focused process for considering the writing aspect of sensitive topics, starting with an editorial meeting with myself, our senior editor, communications team, and social workers on staff who are expert on whatever topic we’re considering.”

Basic questions every association should ask themselves prior to launching such an effort might include who to interview and what resources to access or consider citing; who should review the copy; the desired tone; and whether bold or neutral is the right approach. Organizations should also have a review team and editing style guides specific to the issues – a list of outdated words that have been replaced with more inclusive ones, for example. Build in enough time to your production schedule to pivot if you need to change course, as well.

Some topics may at their core be more difficult to identify reviewers; coverage of the #metoo movement, for example, depended enormously on individuals willing to share their experiences, and not all associations have that level of access into their members’ mindsets. At GRAPHEK, we go into any creative meeting that touches on that level of sensitivity by focusing first on tone.

“We depend on our clients to help us understand what words or concepts are likely to feel triggering,” said GRAPHEK Art Director Sarah Gaydos. “We want to find the sweet spot between capturing attention without going too far. Next, we’ll research what’s been done before on this topic, which helps us understand who’s covered it, how they handled it, and what’s already out there. For very sensitive topics, we collaborate internally before sketching, talking through and trying to get as many diverse perspectives from our team as possible.

“We also know there’s never just one solution,” she added. “Our team typically sketches six to eight cover concepts to present internally, from which we choose three to present to clients. Having a wide range of sketch concepts helps us fill the range between ‘safe’ and ‘pushing the envelope,’ and we often bring in laymen for their perspectives to see how a design resonates. For this, it’s really important to build in time to the schedule to get some of these outside perspectives and feedback. We want all of our designs to evoke an emotion.”

Is there risk? Sure. Anytime an organization tackles a tough topic, there’s a chance that someone will misinterpret intent, a word will get misused, a graphic will rub someone the wrong way. No organization wants negative backlash or confrontation, but our world has changed too much for the status quo to be the answer. Having the courage to talk about the very things that are meaningful to members but that you fear may be divisive is what will ultimately bring all of us to greater understanding and acceptance.

Interested in learning more? Laetitia and Sarah will be presenting Building the Courage to Cover Tough Topics in your Publication at 9:45am on June 27 at AMPLIFY 2023, AM&P Network’s Content and Marketing Summit.  (https://www.siia.net/amplify/agenda/). Register today!