In a crisis – any crisis, but especially in political and public affairs work – two players usually show up on the stage alongside the principal. One is a fresh-faced idealist, often working in PR, who advocates for total transparency. The other, often legal counsel, wants a wall of silence and deniability.
Most of the time, each is oversimplifying things. Most of the time, each is wrong.
Radical transparency and too much detail may sound sexy at a seminar, but it’ll get you killed in a fast-moving political knife fight where media can effectively build a narrative from soundbite headlines alone. At the same time, saying nothing only works if you’re doing everything and can communicate via visible actions alone. Outside of the White House and perhaps the Kardashians, most of us can’t maintain a fire hose of activity like that.
So if you, your program or your organization are in a public, political fight, where does that leave you? It leaves you doing exactly what you’d do if you were in a real fight: Not merely defending, but punching back twice as hard using anything and everything you’ve got.
The strategies and tactics below aren’t softball (trigger warning for my PRSA colleagues), and they’re not interchangeable –- there’s a time for each and none of them work in every situation. But they’re effective.
Change the subject. The oldest, simplest and generally most effective response – like flour in a cake recipe, it’s almost always there. Create or publicize distractions.
Marginalize any source (and any belief in that source) other than yourself. Facts leaking out that you don’t want to leak out in a controversy are wild rumors. You know how believes rumors? The paranoid and hysterical.
Wax indignant. “How dare you!”
Straw men: Line 'em up, knock 'em down. Knock down straw men to look responsive – deal only with weak aspects of weak charges. Next level: Create your own straw men. Make up rumors or outright false stories and give them lots of exposure while you appear to debunk all the charges, real and fanciful alike.
Deligitimize skeptics. Name calling works. Use heavily loaded verbs and adjectives when characterizing their charges. Your side? The more reasonable side. Rookie note: Avoid fair and open debate with the maligned. Bonus round: Set up your own “skeptics” to shoot down.
Go after the motives. Critics aren’t really interested in the truth –- they’re just out to score partisan points / make money / etc.
Time changes everything. Accusations are “old news.”
Confess and avoid. Come half-clean. Look open and honest while admitting only to relatively harmless, less-than-criminal mistakes. You may take a fall-back position different from where you started, but that can have limited, as-needed visibility.
Lean on the complexity. The issue/allegation is impossibly complex and the truth as ultimately unknowable.
Make them solve the crime. So, if this thing happened, who did it? Why? Asking more and better questions than the press looks great and keeps you from making declarative statements. Bonus round: Go full Sherlock Holmes and publicly, deductively reason backward from any accusation or controversy. It’s easy to create logical constructs that show, of course, nothing bad happened because, of course, the press would have found evidence.
Bump and run. If you can’t avoid talking about a controversy, lightly report incriminating facts, and then make nothing of them.
Dummy up. If it’s not reported, if it’s not news, it didn’t happen. Harder than it used to be in a world of leaks and 10 million media outlets, but if you limit your response you limit the facts available for ink to flow.