How to prepare for media and public debate when working on sensitive issues

Written by Brian Ligomeka, Centre for Solutions Journalism, Malawi

Tell us about your organisation and its work

Centre for Solutions Journalism (CSJ) is a human rights organisation based in Malawi, which uses the media, behavioural-change communications, capacity building techniques, and stakeholder engagement to promote gender equality, sexual and reproductive health and rights and sexual minority rights. The CSJ is championing abortion law reform in Malawi.

Can you give an example of a time when you faced difficult questions about your work, perhaps from the press or in a debate? How did you deal with them, and what happened as a result? 

One example I can give you was from a media briefing on abortion law reform.

A journalist said to me: “The Bible condemns murder. In Exodus 20:13 it says ‘Thou shalt not kill’. Why do you advocate for a law which promotes abortion – the killing of babies?”.

I thanked him calmly for asking a good question and told him that I would like to answer him in context, and said the following:

“Since you have cited the Scriptures, here is the Bible. Just find me one verse that mentions the word ‘abortion’, so that the verse mentioning abortion can be a basis of our discussion.”

The journalist attempted to argue further but admitted the Bible does not mention the word ‘abortion’.

I also gave him a factsheet which contained an analysis of Exodus 21:22-25 and explained how the foetus status cannot be equated to a woman’s life. This verse refers to punishment for causing miscarriage. I also provided statistics around maternal deaths.

My closing comments to the journalist was that the new abortion law is aimed at saving the lives of women who die because of unsafe abortions. 

What did you learn from your experience?

Preparation is key. It is important to plan carefully for a discussion on a sensitive issue. It entails anticipating difficult questions and having facts or counter-statements ready. 

Do you have a process or risk policy you run through individually (or with staff), before deciding whether to – or preparing to – participate?

We do not have a risk policy. We use our Anti-Choice Management Strategy; a strategy that identifies anti-choice movement viewpoints, arguments and actions, and outlines how we can rapidly respond to them.

Prior to an interview, at least two people prepare key messages. We do not go to interviews to answer questions, but we go to articulate our messages. We do that by using ‘bridging statements’ to articulate our messages, which besides answering the questions also ensures that facts that support our position are held or the context is given.

Here is an example of a bridging statement: “Before I answer your question, it is important to point out that if abortion law is enacted, it will save the lives of 5,000 women who will otherwise die due to unsafe abortions in this country. Now coming to your question…”.

What are your top tips to ensuring your own security (or that of your staff) is considered when speaking on sensitive issues? For example, do you always meet in a public place, never share your personal mobile phone number etc.?

  • Conduct environment and participants’ analysis such as finding out in advance names of individuals and institutions. For example, we do not hold sexual reproductive health and rights (SRHR) or LGBTIQ meetings in facilities that are owned by anti-choice or homophobic institutions (for example, church-owned conference halls). In the same vein, if we know journalists from Catholic-owned Radio Maria are going to be present for example, we can readily anticipate the types of questions that will be posed, prepare the responses in advance, and even have counter-questions lined up ourselves to distract the interviewer.
  • Ensure there is a support system at an event for when threats are anticipated. For example, have allies in the meeting, ask a driver to be present at the venue, and have contacts accessible to reach out to the police or fellow activists.
  • Create and maintain an ‘Incident Register’ for future references and analysis.
  • Maintain and improve data security protocols. In our case, for example, we have two email addresses; one for our partners and allies; and the other for the public.

When engaging in a debate on a sensitive issue, what are the main things to remember to do or not do?

  • Prepare, prepare and prepare. Thorough preparation involves having your key messages, a media statement, and / or a factsheet ready.
  • During debates or interviews, when a question is repeated or rephrased for you, continue answering it in the same way you answered it previously to avoid the trap of slip-ups.
  • In a face-to-face debate, it is good to have a glass of water handy; a sip can offer you a chance to think carefully before responding.
  • Regardless of the provocative questions or statements that may come your way, remember to keep your cool.

What are your top tips for someone preparing to speak in an environment where they may face higher levels of scrutiny towards their work?

  • Map and understand the positions of your key critics and opponents. If you are expecting them to be present, be sure to acknowledge them.
  • Prepare your speech with the introductory part focusing on shared goals, including acknowledging the opponents’ position. For example, if you are to speak to religious leaders on abortion, the common goal may be ‘the sacredness of life.’  Extrapolate from that shared belief how sacred life is to include the sacredness of women’s lives seeking abortions.
  • Address the elephant in the room with evidence, while – if possible – disarming hostility with humour or interaction with the audience. Design your speech to have brief comments from the audience but be in control to avoid an overdose of toxic comments.
  • Prepare closing remarks that will diffuse negative comments made by critics.
  • Prepare so your endnote is a hug with the lead opponents or a photo call with them.

Brian Ligomeka, Centre for Solutions Journalism, Malawi

Brian Ligomeka is a communications expert and sexual and reproductive health and rights activist currently serving as a Programmes Advisor for the Centre for Solutions Journalism (CSJ).

Brian has led in the implementation of projects advocating for decriminalization of abortion and the promotion of sexual minority rights in Malawi. Brian has addressed hostile audiences on several occasions when discussing ‘taboo’ issues.

Centre for Solutions Journalism website