Advanced Media Training Tip: Redefine Negative Words

One of my clients, a national non-profit organization, faced an interesting problem a few years back. 

The group was lobbying lawmakers to include a critical safety feature in new cars. The safety feature would save lives, reduce injuries, and save insurance companies money.

Sounds like a winning idea, yes?

It was, until a powerful interest fought back. “It will cost too much,” they told lawmakers. And the legislators, already skittish over a rocky economy, bought their arguments. They killed the safety feature, at least for the year.

The group tried again the next year, but was concerned that they would continue to get grilled by legislators on the “cost” question. So we decided to fight back by redefining the word “cost” to work in our favor. When legislators asked about the high cost, the group responded:

“The cost of not acting is significantly greater. It will cost families who lose a loved one in a preventable auto accident. It will cost a badly injured person the chance to return to the workforce. And it will cost American taxpayers a lifetime of government disability checks for people who didn’t have to suffer a debilitating injury. We simply cannot afford the cost of inaction.” 


One of the best examples of this type of media jujitsu came last year, when Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour briefly flirted with a presidential bid. He knew his past as a tobacco lobbyist would come back to haunt him, so he was prepared when a reporter asked him about his former profession:

“I will tell you this: the next president of the United States on January 21, 2013 is going to start lobbying. He’s going to be lobbying Congress, he’s going to be lobbying other countries. He’s going to be lobbying the business community. He’s going to be lobbying the labor unions, and the governors, because that’s what presidents do, and I feel like it’s an advantage for me to have the chance to do that.”


By redefining negative words as positive ones, you’re able to argue your case from an assertive position – not a defensive one. When executed properly, adopting the language of your opponent’s most loaded charge can neutralize their strongest argument.

Note: This example was modified slightly to protect my client’s confidentiality.

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