Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Your piñata strategy: When a political campaign hijacks your message

This time, I'm not talking about piñatas in the shape of certain political candidates, but the more insidious kind--when candidates grab your issue and start to pummel it.

In 2011, it was HPV vaccines, jobs data, high school chemistry, bridges and roads, solar panels that popped up in the course of the presidential political campaigns' efforts to differentiate their candidates from the pack. And it's begun again in 2015, as Marco Rubio pledges to overhaul higher education, just the first of many salvos to come. Here in Washington, we call campaign season "silly season," but the results aren't funny if your topic gets thrown into the national spotlight and beaten like a piñata full of cash money.

My money's on the savvy communicator to be at work now, so you can move fast, and speak authoritatively when your topic gets taken for a political ride (and you don't need to be in a political operation for this to happen). Here are a few resources and ideas to help:
  • Speed your corrections by making them visual.  Need to refute stretched facts, fast? One new study suggests that a visual approach to correcting political misinformation may be your best bet.  Researchers asked study participants to assess three kinds of controversial data, on the U.S. troop "surge" in Iraq, the Obama administration's impact on jobs, and global climate change. Nieman Lab notes: "graphical presentation of corrections (and of controversial information in general) can be more powerful than their textual counterparts in terms of convincing people to amend their misperceptions." The post goes on to suggest prominent placement for infographics when presenting information on controversial topics.
  • Take that a step further with a mapped visual:  Make it easy for local reporters, regional public officials and supporters to find and feature your viewpoint by using a visual map to highlight the impact of a political proposal. Save the Post Offices has done just that, compiling a series of Google Maps highlighting where proposed closures of Post Office facilities would take place. It's a double-whammy: Immediate visual impact, with local data behind it, in one graphic.
  • Get a key endorser who's not a "usual suspect:" One of the scientists who just did a star turn for research on a heretofore unknown "diamond planet" used his moment of celebrity to write a column noting how different his experience would have been had he been publishing data on climate change. His remove from the topic allows him to avoid the tag of bias in favor of his field, and he uses that to point out the similarities all sciences share in research and how it is conducted. Can you find someone to back up your points who's an astute observer--but not in the thick of the fight? Do it.
  • Sharpen your op-ed skills: If your company or organization wants to argue against a political plank that's wreaking havoc in your sector or on your issue, sharpen those op-ed skills (and don't forget, you can publish your own rather than wait for a news site to do it). A smart litmus test for a good op-ed: The first and last paragraphs, taken together, should be all I need to read to get the gist of your argument. Don't bury your real point in the middle. A political piñata issue lets you whack back in an op-ed, countering arguments and data points. Go for it!
  • Prep your spokespeople: It's often painfully obvious when experts aren't prepared for a media-coverage blitz occasioned by an offhand political comment or pointed debate argument. Take the time to identify your likely piñata topics, then get those spokesfolk ready by offering training, including a review of hot-button words and terminology that might get further taken out of context. Help them brainstorm alternatives and strong messages that share the facts in a neutral but authoritative way. I don't know any experts who would fail to welcome that extra help, even if it turns out to be unnecessary--and they likely know, more than you do, which of their issues are most likely to get in harm's way. Don't forget to hand them a variant of Ronald Reagan's best and least anxious debate line to counter broad, ridiculous charges: "There you go again." And remind them that their most useful skill at a time like this will be repeating the facts without going bonkers doing it.
  • Challenge reporters to get beyond "he said, she said" coverage on controversial topics: Use this Jay Rosen post to urge them to get to the truth--especially if the truth is on your side.
  • Learn how to correct a moving record on Twitter, which might be your fastest option to keep rumors in check. It helps if you've built strong followings on Twitter and your other social networks, long before you need them.

(Editor's note: This post significantly updates one from 2011--so many more piñatas to consider in the new election season.)

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