- Op-eds are a powerful way of telling your story in a crisis and should be in every communicator’s tool kit.
- Op-eds written by a committee will fail to make your points clearly. Communications should write the piece with input from the subject matter expert.
- This guidance note is based on our experience using op-eds in a crisis or critical moment and will help you get the most of this opportunity.
One of the best tools available for getting your message across and sharing your story is an op-ed or opinion piece. These have the potential to reach thousands of people and convey the authority of the publication to your message.
We often work with our clients during critical moments or crises to help craft op-eds for newspapers, magazines and occasionally for video platforms. Unfortunately, these valuable pieces are often created by a committee and, as the old adage goes, a camel is a horse that was designed by committee.
Having lots of individuals with the pen leads to multiple perspectives being shoehorned into the same article. In the end, everybody gets one or two points included that they really like but nobody’s happy with the whole product. This valuable means of communications has been squandered.
There are lots of good articles on successful op-ed writing in general, but we have found the following to be the key points to keep in mind in a critical moment or crisis. These will ensure that you maximize the usefulness of this powerful storytelling opportunity.
First, you have to start strong and get the first paragraph right. You only have 50-100 words to make the key point crisply and illustrate it with a story to state your case. This begins by offering a clear, unambiguous opinion or perspective and then helping the reader understand why this point of view matters. Be bold with that perspective and have the courage of your convictions.
Then expand, reinforcing your ideas with facts. The Communications team and subject matter expert must work side-by-side to tell your story accurately and effectively. That will give you a unique perspective based on the expert’s history and understanding that other team members will not have.
Tell a story
Focus on your one main point and tell a story throughout the piece. Explain why this is relevant and why the reader should be interested. Too often we see op-eds that become a litany of grievances or things that need to be corrected. That’s not effective. Instead, have a focused idea that you explain using a story and real-life examples. This is something that the reader can relate to, find relevant and will help them see things through your lens.
If you have to say ‘sorry’, say it clearly
If you are saying sorry, say it clearly and unequivocally. Often, op-eds that we prepare include some kind of an apology and the ability to say, “I’m sorry,” is an increasingly important part of corporate strategy. Mistakes do happen and organizations have to make it right.
Part that will be a list of actions or remediation efforts that you’re going to conduct to mitigate the crisis. Explaining all of that is appropriate but first, you have to say ‘sorry’. That needs to be in the context of the impact on an individual or a group of individuals, but the key thing is to say sorry and acknowledge what you did. Explain the rationale of why you did what you did and why you’re taking this particular course of action to rectify things. But often it has to start with ‘sorry’.
Check your facts
Mistakes or inaccuracies will make your op-ed seem sloppy or insincere. At worst, it can look as though you are not telling the truth. So get your facts right and, if you think a data point might shift over time, say that this is your understanding ‘at the time of writing’. Again, this is where the subject matter expert is key to getting things right.
State your case or write a rebuttal (but not both)
Next, think about what to do about the opposing viewpoint. One approach is to simply lay out your case and focus on telling your story. The other is to rebut the opposing narrative. We’ve tried both and have found it’s difficult to do both in one article. You’re usually constrained to between 750 and 1,000 words which makes it difficult to cover everything and your key message will get lost.
So we encourage you to understand public perception and react accordingly. If the opposition’s argument is a hurdle to progress, then you must rebut that before you can move on. Alternately, if what’s needed is simply for people to understand your perspective, then just tell your story. Depending on the situation, you may find that you need both approaches at different times but we advise against trying to combine the two things in one piece.
Don’t write by committee
Finally, the most important thing is to have as few people involved as possible. Like any statement or press release, an op-ed written by a committee will be the worst of all worlds. We strongly advocate that someone from Communications writes the piece with input from the appropriate subject matter expert. Aim for a tight, accurate first draft using these rules as guidance and limit the number of revisions.
Doing it well the first time – telling a strong, compelling story supported by facts – has the greatest likelihood of success and limits the need for drafts flowing back and forth. Just don’t forget to let Legal and the CEO see the final version as a final ‘sense-check’. If you have a standard approval process use it – the point is to do it late in the journey, not up front. Let the experts do their job.
Seize these opportunities
Use an op-ed as a powerful tool for getting your message across whenever you have the opportunity. This is a particularly powerful platform in a critical moment or crisis. Keep these tips in mind to ensure that it is effective and, most of all, don’t write by committee or you’ll end up with a camel when you were hoping for a racehorse.