Why You Shouldn’t Repeat Your Message Ad Nauseam

Imagine you’re a politician or political candidate. There’s some sort of scandal brewing (real or manufactured). You know that if you answer questions about the mini-scandal, every reporter will use those quotes instead of the more “on message” responses you want them to run. But if you don’t answer their questions, they’ll accuse you of stonewalling.

What should you do?

Well, not this. Aaron Blake of The Washington Post’s excellent “The Fix” blog highlighted a few recent incidents of politicians using the old “keep repeating the same thing” strategy. For one example, he writes:

Jesse Kelly, the GOP nominee for the special election in former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords’s (D-Ariz.) district, has similarly been dealing for days with questions about an endorsement from an anti-illegal immigration PAC that some — including Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) — have labeled racist.

For another example, he writes:

In the same vein, Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.) has caused a mini-brouhaha over his remarks that President Obama is “not an American” at heart. Coffman apologized, but the questions continue about just what he meant.

This strategy worked a lot better in the years before social media, when reporters were more inclined to use the sound bite in their stories without highlighting the stonewall. Those days are over.

Journalists are much more likely to point out the stonewall today, and regularly shame the stonewaller by posting the raw video online (here’s an example from the U.K.). That serves only to bring more attention to the mini-scandal, since reporters have to explain the scandal to help readers make sense of the video.

Here’s the bottom line: This strategy rarely works. Plus, it’s incredibly lazy and uninventive. Instead of repeating the same thing, here are four better options:

1. Don’t agree to the interview in the first place.

2. End the interview (gracefully, with a smile) after you answer the same question twice. (e.g. “Thanks so much for taking the time to speak with me. I have to get back to campaigning – I look forward to seeing you again soon.”)

3. Challenge the journalist. (e.g. “You know, I’ve answered this question repeatedly, and can’t understand why you refuse to focus on the real issues that people in this district care about. Do you have any questions about jobs or the economy?) Note: This works best for conservatives running in red districts where people already have a mistrust of the mainstream media.

4. Change the language. Instead of going on autopilot, politicians and candidates can communicate the same basic point by using different words in each response.

(h/t @FixAaron and @NathanLGonzales). Visit The Fix for two more examples, including a stonewall by Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren (D-MA). 

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