Public relations and the abortion issue: Do’s for PR people, don’ts for clients

by | May 26, 2022 | Public Relations

Ever since the May 2 leak of Justice Alito’s draft opinion overturning Roe V. Wade, the questions on how corporations should react to the brief has been a constant topic of news articles. And as the date draws closer to the expected release of the Supreme Court’s judgment in late June or early July, the media coverage will only intensify. So will the pressure on companies by pro-women’s right to choose groups.

No doubt, public relations executives, who pretend that they have all the answers to any problem, have provided advice to companies large and small. To my thinking, that’s a misuse of public relations. Because whether a company remains silent on the abortion issue or goes public with a pro-choice or anti-abortion stance should not be decided by PR advice. That’s because, in my opinion, there is no right or wrong public relations position a company should take on the issue. Abortion is not a PR problem. It is a moral question and the PR implications of a company’s stand should not be decided by PR people.

Saying that, there is a place for public relations practitioners: It should be limited to advising their clients how to respond to media requests and employee pressure groups

Here are a few suggestions:

  • Importantly, companies should not stay silent on the issue. They have the right to not respond to press inquiries but should be permissive, if their employees want in-house discussions on the subject. In fact, I would go so far as advising management to encourage employee in-house discussions on this and other controversial issues. Doing so does not mean that a company has to agree with their work force. But because so many younger employees want the company they work for to take a position on controversial issues, permitting employees to express their opinions could result in a happier and more stable workforce and position the company as an employee-friendly entity that does not consider employees as just another payroll number. Public relations practitioners can draft media campaigns around the openness of the company, which can result in making it the go-to place for job seekers.
  • Public relations practitioners should provide options to clients about how to address the abortion situation if a major publication seeks answers. Clients should be provided with various replies including why a company is remaining silent on the issue or why it is taking a pro-choice position and is providing financial aid to female employees who have to go out state to obtain an abortion.
  • PR people should advise clients the dangers of doing a taped TV interview on the subject. Editing can result in a client’s position not being clearly stated.
  • Both during print and live interviews, PR people should advise the client to insist on answering a question without being interrupted, even if it upsets the interviewer. And all interviews should be tape recorded by the client (for use if an interviewer deliberately misquotes the client).
  • PR people should prepare draft press releases regarding client positions so that they can be released immediately if a client decides to take a public stand. Speeches and Op-Eds should also be prepared for fast use if needed.
  • Just as PR companies prepare clients with tough questions prior to interviews, they should prepare a list of tough Q & A abortion questions that clients can use if questioned about the company’s stand on the issue.
  • PR people should daily survey how other corporations are handling the issue and should advise clients on the pros and cons of staying silent.
  • PR people should advise clients that not responding to a journalist’s request regarding a company’s stand on Roe v. Wade will likely result in negative media coverage.
  • And, of course, PR people should do what I always insisted those who reported to me do: First thing in the morning read all the national newspapers, magazines and trade books that arrived in the mail to see if there are any stories that would affect their clients. And if so, notify the clients ASAP. Because of the abortion controversy, PR people should also designate one person to watch the morning and evening TV news programs for breaking news.

In my opinion, the days when corporations can stay silent on controversial issues has long past

Younger employees want management to take a stand on controversial issues. While taking a stand might upset some employees who disagree with management, not taking a stand is likely to upset a larger number of employees, resulting in a disgruntled work force.

Also, in my opinion, management has the right to say that any controversial political issues are off-limit on company sites, even though I think that is a short-0sighted position because the abortion issue has a very long shelf life. The controversy is just beginning and management that makes decisions to remain quiet will receive negative press coverage and lose valuable employees as more and more corporations go public.

Because the abortion issue will be with us throughout the 2022 mid-terms, the 2024 presidential elections and after, management will eventually be forced to take a stand because of employee pressure. At the very least, management should permit both pro and anti-abortion advocates to have their say on internal company communication sites, unlike Meta, which told employees not to discuss abortion on internal sites and limited discussions about abortion to groups of five people or less with “like-minded people,” which, of course was leaked and resulted in negative media coverage.

While those opposing a women’s right to choose might have the upper hand today, the tide of history shows that Americans are becoming more accepting regarding social issues that in the past were rejected

As the older generations of conservative Americans and conservative corporate executives quit the work force, they will be replaced with a younger more socially liberal staff. Employers who remain quiet on controversial issues like abortion are likely not to be the first choice for future employees, especially younger talented females who are attending college at a greater rate than males.

In many respects, the future is today and the longer a company remains quiet about the abortion controversy the more it is in the past.

Arthur Solomon
Arthur Solomon, a former journalist, was a senior VP/senior counselor at Burson-Marsteller, and was responsible for restructuring, managing and playing key roles in some of the most significant national and international sports and non-sports programs. He also traveled internationally as a media adviser to high-ranking government officials. He now is a frequent contributor to public relations publications, consults on public relations projects and was on the Seoul Peace Prize nominating committee. He has been a key player on Olympic marketing programs and also has worked at high-level positions directly for Olympic organizations. During his political agency days, he worked on local, statewide and presidential campaigns. He can be reached at arthursolomon4pr (at) juno.com.