Knowing when to respond to your opponents

Friday, July 1, 2016 at 12:06PM
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I often work on campaigns that are focused not on marketing a product or service, but rather, 'an idea' or a set of values.

By their very nature, these kinds of campaigns - what some people call 'social marketing' - are fraught with emotion that, if you're not careful, can derail your campaign and distract from your long-term objectives.

A common emotional response in campaigns like these is anger or defensiveness when your opposition lies or distorts the truth about your project or idea.

As humans, we often have a "fight or flight" stress response when we're feeling attacked or threatened. Simply put, when we have a stress response, we get a shot of adrenline to the brain that triggers either flight ("get me out of this situation") or "fight" (which can manifest as a punch, a screaming match or - in the case of communications - a Twitter dogfight or temper tantrum during a media interview).

The instinct to "fight back" when your message or product is under attack is the most natural thing in the world. However, clients and colleagues can misinterpret this basic instinct as sound communications strategy. Clients and colleagues often say this to me (their communications advisor): "If you leave a lie out there unaddressed, people will start to believe it. We must hit back!"

Fighting back is very appealing because it feels good. It makes us feel like we're "doing something" and influencing the outcome of a situation. But that's not always the case.

I'm always the bad guy when I tell clients and colleagues to walk away. So, why isn't fighting back always the right way to respond?

Because the problem isn't the lie. The problem is whether or not people believe the lie. If they believe the lie - well, it's time for evasive maneouvers or a retaliation plan. But if no one believes the lie, sometimes it's better to ignore it altogether. Let me explain why.

When to walk away

When a lie or distortion isn't getting much traction, sometimes "fighting back" only serves to spread the false information further, to a much larger audience - which can actually give fuel to your opposition's claims. It's like spraying lighter fluid on soggy kindling. Why do that, when the fire will be out in a few seconds if you just leave it alone?

Now, this doesn't mean that you let lies go unanswered. Make the truth widely known, through fact sheets, media interviews, websites, face-to-face meetings, e-mail, or on social media. Just don't engage in a public argument about the lie. If you can, don't even mention the lie, even as you're sharing the facts and the truth.

To engage suddenly puts you in the position of defending the truth - and that's right where your opposition wants you: on the defensive. If your audience already believes the truth, don't waste time, energy, money, social capital or publicity trying to refute the lie. Your audience will do that for you. Just give them the facts and proof points to do it with.

An example of this is the treatment by some news media outlets of US presidential candidate Donald Trump's claims earlier this year that his rallies are 'not violent'. The best evidence media has to refute this untruth is the replete video evidence of Trump supporters sucker-punching or attacking protesters at rallies without provocation (as demonstrated in this highlight piece put together by the Washington Post). No 'he said/she said' argument is required: the video evidence speaks for itself.

Unfortunately, many journalists and Trump rivals went there anyway, and engaged in the argument...and this showed how arguing about whether the rallies are violent or not only served to provide more attention to Trump campaign overall. In an effort to prove they were right, Trump's critics gave his campaign even more attention than it would have received otherwise.

When to fight

There are times when you do have to fight - when you need to go on the offence, and call your critics on their horsepucky. You do this when the lie (or the distortion) has become - or is at serious risk of becoming - something that a significant number of people are starting to believe.

Donald Trump provides us with another high-profile example of when it makes sense to fight back. In 2011, Donald Trump questioned openly and repeatedly whether US President Barack Obama was actually born in the USA. He bolstered the 'credibility' of his argument but saying that he had sent private investigators to Hawaii to look into the matter.

Trump successfully leveraged a pervasive American fear of Muslim radicalism to create suspicion and doubt about Obama's origins and true place of birth. To counter the allegations, Obama asked the Hawaii Department of Health to certify the validity of his birth certificate, and released the long-form document as proof of his provenance. And yes, to this day, some people still question whether or not Obama was born in the US. Now that's the power of a lie that some people want to believe.

Know when to hold 'em, and when to fold 'em

The truth is, there is no one "rule" for when to react, and when to let the sleeping dog lie. What's most important in a campaign is to focus on your long-term goals. Don't get knocked off course by a deliberate confrontation designed to do just that. Stay strong, be brave, watch for the signs.

And always listen to your communications advisor.

Originally published on LinkedIn

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  1. Lesli,
    I like this insightful piece and agree on the need to "watch for the signs" rather than leap into engagement you cannot win. Also your polite, homespun turn of phrase: horsepucky...

    Written on Monday, July 25, 2016 at 16:09hrs by James Boothroyd