At any time, others may become aware of a library challenge, from word of mouth about a verbal complaint, from a blog by the individual or group who filed the challenge, or from a board agenda posted publicly in the community. The concerned individual(s) may use the media to share their viewpoint and attempt to sway public opinion. Rumors and opinions can escalate a challenge into a media wildfire.
In these circumstances, it is important that the library or school district speak with one official voice: the library director, principal, superintendent, or other designated spokesperson. Everyone else on the library or school staff should decline to make statements or answer questions and should refer media inquiries to the spokesperson. The common talking point for all libraries involved in a challenge is the freedom to read and access to information. When appropriate, as the challenge becomes public, library and school district administrators may seek the support of local media. Informing local civic organizations of the facts and enlisting their support may counter negative, one-sided media coverage with moderate, tempered discussion.
Dealing with Controversy and Negative Publicity
- Prepare, but don’t overreact. If, for example, a local television station runs a “Sex at the Library” story about pornography on the Internet, prepare a statement but don’t release it until you gauge reaction to the story.
- Be strategic in your use of the media. A letter to the editor or an op-ed piece clarifying the library’s position can be helpful, especially if it is to correct a misrepresentation of fact. Engaging in a long, defensive battle of letters is neither productive nor a good use of advocates’ energy.
- Anticipate difficult questions and develop answers ahead of time. Ask your friends and colleagues to help you practice your answers and bridging to your key message. Practice answering easy questions, too, so you will not be caught off guard.
- Listen. Do not judge. Try to identify and address the real concern or issue being addressed.
- Acknowledge. Pause to show that you have given the question serious consideration. Frame your answer with a positive response. For example, “I respect your views, but let me give you another perspective,” or “We share your concern for children. Our approach is...”
- Be factual. It is better to say, “I don’t know” than to provide inaccurate information. If faced with a claim or information with which you are not familiar, simply say, “I hadn’t heard that. I’ll have to check,” or “What I do know is...”
- Do not repeat loaded or negative words. If asked, “Why do librarians let children look at smut and porn?” do not repeat the words “smut” and “porn” in your answer.
- Keep your answers to the point. Do not volunteer more information than is asked. Remaining silent, as well as asking the same question in different ways, are well-known techniques used by reporters in the hope that their subjects will stray off message.
- Be truthful. Speak from your own experience: “In our library the policy is...” or “My experience is...”
- Do not assume anything you say is off the record. It can and may be repeated.
- Maintain an open, calm, and friendly attitude and posture. Avoid crossed arms, tapping feet, and other body language that conveys stress. Appearing defensive, angry, or out of control undermines credibility.
- Stick to the high road. Do not criticize or get personal with an opponent. Stay focused on the key message.