Don’t Let Media Dictate Strategy

A political strategist has to learn how to deal with hate.

Or more specifically, a strategist has to accept the fact that media pundits will most likely detest and publicly berate his or her tactics, especially if those tactics involve the use of so-called “negative ads”.

Indeed, whenever such negative ads hit the airwaves, the media’s initial reaction to them will almost always be subtle variations of “Oh God, how I hate them!”

And the script is pretty much predictable

Sometimes media pundits will blast a negative ad as an attack on “civil discourse”; sometimes they’ll say it’s laughably “simplistic”; sometimes they will call it “bullying” or “wedge politics” or “dumbing down” debate to the lowest common denominator.

And, of course, here in Canada, the most commonly employed insult is to label a negative ad an “American-style attack.”

Also predictable is that pundits, columnists and editorial writers will typically follow up their vehement denunciations with a heart-felt plea for all politicians to shelve their attack ads and to commit themselves to being positive and to talking more about the issues and to staying on the moral high …. Zzzzzz.

Oops sorry, I dozed off there for a second.

Where was I?

Oh yes, my point is, if you’re a political strategist you need to understand all this, meaning if you go negative against an opponent, you must expect and you must be ready for any media blowback.

For one thing, the media will probably call you all sorts of names, i.e. “Lord of Darkness”, “Merchant of Venom”, “Attack dog”, (I was once likened to a street gang member!) but that hardly matters.

More worrisome is your candidate or your donors might panic at the media’s negative reaction to your ads and thus might call upon you to discard your aggressive approach and get positive.

In short, they’ll want the media to say nice things about the campaign.

And that’s just normal. After all, nobody wants to be assailed in the press for destroying democratic decency.

This is why if a campaign has decided to go on the attack, the strategist in charge must prepare the candidate for the inevitable negative media reaction.

That means plainly laying out the strategic purpose behind any attack (it helps if you have polling data to back you up), i.e. maybe going negative makes sense in the context of the campaign you’re running either because you’re coming under attack from the other side or because the other side’s “unfavourables” offer too good a target to resist.

More importantly, you have to explain to the candidate why any negative reaction to your ad campaign from the media is actually irrelevant, since the ads are designed to sway voters not columnists.

It might also help to bring up the British Columbia provincial election of 2013.

If you recall, that’s the election the BC NDP, under the then leadership of Adrian Dix, ran a campaign that was brimming with positivity; Dix denounced negative politics and promised to stay on the high road.

As Dix’s campaign manager, Brian Topp, would later write, “This was ….widely praised in the media.”

Yet unfortunately for the NDP, such media praise didn’t insulate Dix from the real world.

In fact, the BC Liberals, who didn’t seem to care much about the media’s opinion, basically sunk the NDP with relentless and highly effective attacks, attacks which Dix failed to respond to in kind, because he wanted to remain positive.

So in the end, although Dix’s positive strategy may have won him the hearts of pundits, it also likely ended up losing him the support of voters.

(This article originally appeared as a column in the Ottawa Hill Times.)


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