So, you’re running for local office and your opponent, or one of his surrogates, just launched the kind of scurrilous personal political attack that makes your family’s toenails curl. What do you do?
Unless you’re a communications/public relations expert – and most candidates don’t come close – counterattacking is a really bad idea. Responding to an attack with an attack:
- Gives their attack credibility, even if it’s an outright lie
- Allows your opponent to control the conversation while you simply respond
- Brings you down to their level
Though this is the option most candidates choose, it’s usually the worst response to a political attack possible. Remember! Never wrestle with a pig in the manure, because you both get covered and the pig likes it.
The only thing that could make this scenario worse is if your turn your surrogates or family loose on your opponent. That will swiftly descend into the kind of sixth-grade taunting match that will forever associate your race, and perhaps your name, with the word “immaturity.”
And if you get into a name calling match with an incumbent, you probably just killed any chance of unseating them.
Yes! If possible, this is the best response to a political attack. Silence works because:
- Attacks tend to fizzle without a comeback to keep it going
- You retain control of the conversation and your message
- Taking the high road is a good long-run local political strategy
I know it’s hard to let it go, especially if it’s a lie and your friends and family are desperate to rush your defense, but nothing gives an untruth more credibility than a spirited defense!
If there is truth to the attack, this is an extremely effective strategy. For example, if a previous arrest pops up, something like this might put it to bed; “I’ve never said I’m perfect. I’ve made mistakes and I’ve learned from those mistakes. That capacity will serve me very well as your next (name of office).
Not only does this kind of response directly answer and defuse the question, but it makes your opponent look foolish and petty for bringing it up.
Reframe and deflect it?
If silence isn’t an option, and that’s often the case with higher-level local races, reframing the attack is the best response, especially if it’s done with a light dose of humor.
In the 2017 Aurora, Illinois, mayoral race, the Guzman campaign made the mistake of going after opponent Richard Irvin for being a defense attorney. That attack came in the form of a mailer accusing Irvin of defending “domestic abusers” and “rapists.”
As his messaging and strategy consultant, I advised Richard, if publicly questioned, the best response was, “Everybody hates defense attorneys until they need one. Then they love ‘em.” And he pulled it off with that twinkle in his eye perfection.
If the candidate can laugh at an attack, it loses its impact with the voters, too.
Of course, the local papers wanted Richard to comment on that mailer, and this is the statement we used:
“The American justice system is based on the proposition that every defendant is presumed innocent. It’s a fundamental assertion that sets us apart from dictatorships, repressive regimes, and even the European Union.
My opponent forgets that I was also a prosecutor. And it takes a former prosecutor to understand what it means to bring the full weight of “The People” to bear against one defendant.
Everyone charged is entitled to a zealous defense. Without it, trials would become mere theater. Illinois abandoned the death penalty because so many post-trial death-row inmates were proven innocent
Abraham Lincoln was a defense attorney. Clarence Darrow was a defense attorney. John Adams was a defense attorney. I’m proud to count myself in their company and I do my best to live up to that ideal every day.
I’m surprised and disappointed my opponent fails to grasp this very basic principle.“
And that attack failed to gain any traction whatsoever.
We reframed it, deflected it back onto his opponent, and Richard delivered the counter-message with sticking-to-the-script perfection. Now he’s the Mayor of Aurora.
The problem is, most candidates don’t even begin understand how this negative attack dynamic works. Since most campaign managers aren’t communications experts, 95 percent of them will immediately issue a counterattack that puts control of the conversation squarely in your opponent’s hands.
The messaging experts at Forward Communication understand how to handle and deflect those inevitable political attacks. So, if you’re considering running for alderman on up to county chairman, please have a conversation with the professionals at Forward Communication first. We won’t let you fall into the negative attack trap. We help first-time and experienced candidates win elections.