Controversial Content: Is It Worth It for Your Business? A Look Back At Grantland

Jimmy Daly
by Jimmy Daly | Last Updated Mar. 5th, 2014 0 COMMENTS

Grantland Controversy

The story behind Dr. V’s Magical Putter will likely be a topic in journalism schools for years to come.

Caleb Hannan, a young reporter for the pop culture and sports website Grantland, pitched his editors on a story about a so-called magic putter. It’s an entertaining story, and absolutely worth a read, but this post isn’t about putters, it’s about handling controversy on your blog. To make a very long story very short, the subject of Hannan’s article, inventor Essay Anne Vanderbilt, was transgender. Hannan discovered this in his reporting but Vanderbilt had not made that information public. In October 2013, she committed suicide.

While it remains entirely unclear whether Hannan’s reporting had anything to do with Vanderbilt’s death, Grantland posthumously “outed” her when they published Hannan’s story in January. The story was initially well-received, the backlash was thorough and harsh. Journalists defended Hannan, saying he did what any trained journalist would do, while others suggested that his work directly impacted her untimely death. Regardless, Grantland made some serious mistakes, which editor-in-chief Bill Simmons addressed in a post the next week.

Someone familiar with the transgender community should have read Caleb’s final draft. This never occurred to us. Nobody ever brought it up. Had we asked someone, they probably would have told us the following things …

  1. You never mentioned that the transgender community has an abnormally high suicide rate. That’s a crucial piece — something that actually could have evolved into the third act and an entirely different ending. But you missed it completely.
  2. You need to make it more clear within the piece that Caleb never, at any point, threatened to out her as he was doing his reporting.
  3. You need to make it more clear that, before her death, you never internally discussed the possibility of outing her (and we didn’t).
  4. You botched your pronoun structure in a couple of spots, which could easily be fixed by using GLAAD’s style guide for handling transgender language.
  5. The phrase “chill ran down my spine” reads wrong. Either cut it or make it more clear what Caleb meant.
  6. Caleb never should have outed Dr. V to one of her investors; you need to address that mistake either within the piece, as a footnote, or in a separate piece entirely.

(And maybe even … )

  1. There’s a chance that Caleb’s reporting, even if it wasn’t threatening or malicious in any way, invariably affected Dr. V in ways that you never anticipated or understood. (Read Christina Kahrl’s thoughtful piece about Dr. V and our errors in judgment for more on that angle.)

To my infinite regret, we never asked anyone knowledgeable enough about transgender issues to help us either (a) improve the piece, or (b) realize that we shouldn’t run it. That’s our mistake — and really, my mistake, since it’s my site. So I want to apologize. I failed.

There are a number of lessons to be learned here, even if your blog falls on the marketing side — as opposed to the journalism side — of the content spectrum. Controversy is surefire way to generate clicks but if you are in the business of content marketing, it likely doesn’t align with your business objectives. Here are a few things to keep in mind before publishing a post on a controversial topic.

3 Things Questions to Ask Before Blogging About a Controversial Topic

  1. How does this post serve my audience? Your readers come to your blog because they trust you as a source of information. Trust must be continually earned, meaning you need to advance your readers knowledge, entertain them and provide content that can’t be found anywhere else. Controversial topics likely don’t fit the bill unless they are directly related to your niche.
  2. How does this post advance my business goals? For most content marketers, the goal of blogging to drive leads and ultimately sales. If addressing a controversial issue, particularly by offering a personal opinion, means that you will alienate potential readers and customers, stear clear of it.
  3. Is this the right platform for personal opinion? A personal blog is the right place for personal opinions. A business blog is the right place for resources, news and knowledge. Of course, sometimes there is overlap between personal and professional presences online, meaning business owners and blog editors have to be careful about what they say on the web.

It is, of course, possible to address controversial topics tactfully.

  1. Choose your battles carefully. If you choose to take on a controversial topic, understand that you may get backlash. Be prepared to handle negative responses. Is it worth the extra pageviews?
  2. Present both sides of the story. Controversial topics, especially newsworthy events, generate a lot of interest online. If you are looking to capitalize on a surge of searches and social media activity, consider address both sides of a story without offering an opinion. This way you can keep readers informed without upsetting potential leads.
  3. Start a discussion. Gregory Ciotti tackles this beautifully on the Unbounce blog:

Successful controversial content on business blogs should stir up a debate that people feel strongly about, but that won’t result in genuinely hurting people’s feelings.

Essentially, a debate that will have people tripping over themselves to leave their opinion and share it, but one that avoids offensive topics and instead promotes controversy on topics that the general public will not be genuinely upset with.

The thing is, the controversy DOES NOT have to be stupid or silly like arguing over toilet paper, I use that example to simply remind you to stay away from “true” controversies that take things too far.

Have you effectively used controversy in your content marketing? Let us know in the comments.

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