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Negative Campaigning – Sometimes It’s Revealing!

Posted on: July 29th, 2012

Presentations: Negative Campaigning – Sometimes It’s Revealing!The Reassurance Principle

Nobel prize-winning author Elie Wiesel wrote in The Washington Post, “America is waiting for an authentic and superior national debate (between the Presidential candidates on how to deal with terrorism and its roots).”

I once wrote that with Americans fearing terrorism we need more words from candidates on how they’ll keep us safe and less on bashing each other.

And yet, we should not overlook the fact that candidates bashing each other, benefits us. Some 2004 campaign trail tidbits to get us started:

*Presidential candidate John Kerry talked by phone with radio host Don Imus, one of his more influential supporters at the time. When Kerry hung up, Imus’s blunt producer Bernie McGuirk asked, “Where’s the passion?” and said, “Give us a fight!” He urged emulating democratic Senator Zell Miller’s famously fiery speech at the GOP convention, getting tough, and said Kerry should call his opponents, “Fat liars or something!”

*Congressman Richard Burr said it is time for “skin to rip and blood to flow” in his race against Democrat Erskine Bowles for the U.S. Senate according to a Capitol Hill newspaper. Bowles, in turn, asked Burr for a truce on attack ads but warned, “If you refuse my offer and I am attacked, I will respond.” Peace does not seem forthcoming.

Bruising political struggles, as counter-intuitive as it seems, ultimately serve a “reassuring” purpose.

Some background. In my crisis PR practice we follow a theory called the Reassurance Principle. As I have often written, people want to know whether they are safe. The Principle, therefore, says when trouble strikes you should act and communicate in ways that reassure people they are indeed safe. I once thought the Reassurance Principle did NOT apply to politics and especially campaigns. How could a candidate be reassuring in a hardball world of negative ads, debates, and confrontations? What especially puzzled me was why a philosophy that helped corporate captains did not assist candidates. Why would we want companies and institutions to act in comforting ways and not expect the same of political leaders? After reflection, I concluded that I was overlooking an important element. Reassurance comes not just from tactics and words, but also from the way a chief executive – and a political candidate – personally handles adversity.

Business leaders prove their mettle by facing and triumphing over challenges of growth, contraction, competition, finance, employees, unions, lawsuits, regulators, government, and even poor decisions. When they demonstrate that they have the steeliness and shrewdness to perform against adversity, they reassure us not only about themselves, but about their companies, and, by extension, their products, and their brands. If we are stakeholders, we feel safe. We trust them and buy their goods, services, and stock.

Political leaders too have to demonstrate whether they have the right stuff, but their venue is the campaign crucible. We watch to see how they handle opponents, debates, quarrels, allegations, negative advertising, and sometimes even defeat. For them to prevail in this arena and atmosphere they often must respond as though they are on Survivor, having to “outwit, outplay, and outlast” their competition. We learn a lot when we see how they get back up after being knocked down. The thought-process and personality of the person that emerges from this grinder are telling. If we like what we see we will trust, support, and vote for them (assuming their track record on issues is appealing.) We are reassured. The Reassurance Principle does apply to candidates.

So as you watch slash and burn electioneering, heated confrontation, or hard-hitting questioning; observe carefully. See how the candidates hold up; see what political trench warfare reveals.

What you see will almost certainly telegraph what they will do with unforgiving real life ahead. Past will be prologue. Tough campaigning is Darwinian, and it is a darn good thing that it is.

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