Written exclusively for Local Victory by Guest Columnist Mark Macias, author of Beat the Press: Your Guide to Managing the Media
There’s only one real way to beat bad news that comes out about your candidate: get out in front of it. In the press game, you’ve got to respond to bad press, quickly and loudly. Think back to high school.
Whenever you heard a bad rumor about someone, you almost always assumed it was true unless the person came out and denied it in a credible way. The laws of human behavior haven’t changed much since then. If the source is credible, most people are going to believe the story has merit unless there is some form of denial involved by the accused.
In the fall of 2007, an anchor for a local cable news channel in New York was fired for calling into a newscast under a fake name. When the story first broke, a local newspaper reported the anchor was fired because he phoned into an evening call-in show, saying he was “Dalton” from the Upper East Side. He gave his opinion about a public official-Bernard Kerik-a former New York Police Commissioner who was facing a 16-count federal indictment. The anchor had a serious lapse in judgment because everyone recognized his voice on television. He was an anchor and these were his coworkers listening to his rants against a public official on television under a bogus name. He wasn’t fooling anyone with his lies.
Salacious stories like these quickly circulate around newsrooms. When the story first broke, producers and reporters inside my newsroom all debated whether the article was true or if the station was using this as an excuse to release the anchor from his contract. In television, people are fired for all kinds of reasons but this sounded so ludicrous it was hard to believe a person could be this dumb. After reading the article, one producer cast his opinion: “It has to be true,” he said. “Listen to his response. He doesn’t deny it.”
If your candidate is accused of doing something that he or she didn’t do, make sure your denial is clear and crisp. There must be no reading between the lines. Don’t mince words when you tell the reporter or producer that the allegation is false and you didn’t do it. And if you talk on television, don’t give viewers an opportunity to draw their own conclusions. Make it easy for them to believe that you are a victim, and the accusations are false. Be clear in your denial.
Bill Clinton was a master communicator and he articulated his denial to perfection when he told America in 1998 the allegations against him involving Monica Lewinsky were false: “I want to say one thing to the America people. I want you to listen to me. I’m going to say this again. I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky.”
Many people believed President Clinton after they heard that speech. The President sounded sincere, honest and straightforward in his denial, and many people assumed he was the victim of dirty politics. If it had not been for that little blue dress much of America would have believed him forever and perhaps history would have viewed him differently.
It’s easy to deny charges when the allegations are false, but what happens when the allegations against you are true? How should you respond when someone accuses you or your campaign of a negative act, and inside you know it did happen? I wouldn’t recommend pulling a page from President Clinton’s crisis book and denying it at all costs. President Clinton rightfully assumed it was going to be his word versus the word of a former intern and most of America would see him as the credible one. He obviously didn’t take into account the stained dress would survive the years and surface as evidence. Likewise, you never know what evidence the reporter or producer has supporting the allegation against you, so don’t deny something that you know is true. Reporters are paid to find facts and if they find any information that proves you are lying, your credibility is lost for good.
I’m of the journalism school that subscribes it will almost always hurt you to decline an interview with the media, regardless of whether you are guilty or innocent. If you say no to an interview, you have virtually no chance of shaping the story’s coverage. However, if you say yes to an interview and artfully prepare your statements you can at least maintain damage control. And with a little splash of spin, there is even a chance you could turn a negative story into a positive one.
There are several reasons why I say it will almost always hurt you to not talk to the media. The most important reason is you give a reporter full reign to pursue his or her story when you decline to speak on the record. Every allegation in a reporter’s story must be vetted or at least screened by the accused for legal reasons, but if you refuse to talk to the journalist, he doesn’t have to run the allegations by anyone. Effectively, you remove a reporter’s checks and balances by refusing to talk to a reporter.
In addition, if you don’t defend yourself people will assume you are guilty. Even if the reporter reads a statement from you, viewers and readers will gloss over that element of the story. Instead, they will see and hear a victim making strong charges against you. They will hear evidence supporting the victim’s claim. And then they are going to hear the reporter say on camera, “The candidate, Mr. Johnny Jones, refused to answer any of our questions.”
The subconscious mind will be moving in high gear when this is heard. Why wouldn’t the candidate or campaign manager talk to the reporter? Viewers and readers will assume the businessman is guilty and hiding something. If he didn’t do it, he would deny it. It’s common human behavior to assume guilty people try to hide. And if you don’t believe that, think back to the OJ Simpson police chase involving his White Bronco. Nearly all of America cast their guilty vote after they saw OJ running from the law.
Now, let’s assume you do decide to talk to the media. The story must now include a portion of its time to your defense. If your communication strategy is executed properly, readers and viewers will hear from you why: A) the story isn’t true, B) the opposition is stretching the truth, or C) you are working to solve the problem. If you can project an image of sympathy or empathy, viewers might even feel sorry for you and give you the benefit of the doubt, knowing everyone is entitled to make a mistake in life.
About the author: Mark Macias is a television journalist working in New York City. He’s also the author of the book, Beat the Press: Your Guide to Managing the Media, which reveals overt and covert tactics in squashing any negative stories. You can read more at http://www.beatthepressbook.com/
For more information on dealing with negative campaigning and bad press, read Local Victory’s How to Deal with Bad Political Press.