10 steps to losing in the court of public opinion

How you can easily stumble in the world of politics, public relations and the law

Warren KinsellaThere are lots of rules to remember about politics, public relations and the law. Here are 10:

Don’t brag about hiring private investigators. 

For example, in the middle of a #MeToo-type full-blown crisis, don’t have one of your people go on a radio program and say you’ve hired private detectives to do a “forensic” investigation. Because that means you’re admitting you’re digging through the private lives of various people – your alleged victims, your caucus colleagues, your former staff who had the good sense to dump you – to dig up dirt.

It means your strategy, basically, is to try to pull everyone down into the muck with you.

Don’t attack your alleged victims.

In the #MeToo era, even Harvey Weinstein understood that you don’t victimize the victims twice.

That’s one of the best things to happen, post-Weinstein, in fact: in the court of public opinion, the balance of proof has shifted. More and more of us have a tendency to give women alleging sexual abuse the benefit of the doubt.

You needed to remember that. You didn’t.

After paying tribute to victims everywhere, don’t attack them.

For instance, after reading off some talking points your lawyers prepared for you (like: “A safe and respectful society is what we expect and deserve. We need to move forward to eradicate sexual violence and harassment across the province – across the country. Everywhere.”) you shouldn’t turn around, three weeks later, and disrespect your alleged victims.

You shouldn’t do the polar opposite of what you exhorted everyone, “everywhere,” to do. Among other things, it makes you look like a liar.

Don’t forget the reflection you see in the mirror.

In your soul, you know who you are and you know what people have been saying about you in the riding and elsewhere for years – namely that you have a zipper problem. That you have been too reckless with too many young women.

It’s public relations 101: don’t try to change, in 40 days, a perception that has built up over years. It won’t work.

Don’t attack the media that has told nothing but the truth.

For instance, when one of the country’s biggest media organizations has broadcast a story about you – and when you know they’ve been working on it for weeks, and when every word in it has been carefully lawyered and when they’ve given you an opportunity to respond – it’s pretty dumb to come out, a full three weeks after you resigned, and call them names.

One, they gave you a chance to respond. Two, if they were as wrong as you claim, why resign? If it was all a lie, like you say, why quit?

Don’t be obvious.

For example, don’t start bragging about how you’re going to launch a public relations campaign with only select media – the ones you’ve been friendly with, say – and use it as a pretext to attack other media.

At the end of the day, media folks will almost always stick together: when you unfairly attack one, they will see it as an unfair attack on all of them.

Don’t treat a minor misstep like a major war crime.

Are the media human? Yes. Do they make mistakes? Yes, like all humans.

So, say, if one of your alleged victims gets wrong her age at the time of an alleged incident – and if that does absolutely nothing to alter the main allegation against you (to wit, acting inappropriately with a young woman) – don’t treat that like the public relations equivalent of VE-Day.

People understand that sexual harassment and sexual abuse are, for the victims, profoundly traumatic events: they don’t expect “forensic” clarity. When you do, you look even worse.

Take advice, listen to others.

Your staff and your colleagues defended you, day after day after day. They worked their tails off for you and defended you against every criticism – including persistent allegations of inappropriate behaviour.

When your staff all resign on you (on a matter of principle) or your caucus colleagues insist that you resign (ditto), it’s very bad strategy to start attacking them post facto.

Among other things, it’s unfair.

And it says a lot more about you than it does about them.

Pop culture sometimes has lessons to give.

Remember It’s My Party and I’ll Cry if I Want To, that big hit by Lesley Gore back in the 1960s? That’s what you’re doing now, essentially. You’re saying ‘it was my party and I’ll destroy it if I want to.’

If you can’t raise yourself up, you’ll pull everyone else down. If you can’t be the winner, you’ll make sure no one else wins, either.

Put up or shut up.

It’s been more than three weeks. You’ve called the allegations against you “defamatory” over and over and over. Well, it’s time to put your money where your mouth is. Either issue a libel notice or don’t.

But if you don’t – and, so far, you haven’t – we can only conclude that what was said about you was true.

There you go: 10 tips, free of charge. Haven’t even mentioned your name.

Don’t have to.

Warren Kinsella is a Canadian journalist, political adviser and commentator. His latest book, Recipe For Hate, has just been published across North America and Europe by Dundurn Press.

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