Range of responses
A highly problematic response to an attack is the phrase ‘no comment’. If a reporter asks a politician: “Did you have that extra-marital affair?” and the response is “No comment”, it is generally taken as “Yes, I did, and now please just go away and leave me alone”.

This is because many people generally like to read complex meanings into simple statements. A widely held response to ‘no comment’ would be: ‘If he were innocent, he would have come out with a straight denial, right?’

How would an emphatic denial work out? One example is: “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.” That’s short and emphatic, and a pointed finger adds even more emphasis.

Well, unfortunately, that response, or anything that comes close to it, will remind an audience of former US President Bill Clinton’s guilt every time. It didn’t work for him then; and because of the mess he landed in, it’s less likely to work for anyone else now.

The whole business of determining the right response becomes very complicated very quickly. To a surprising extent the paradoxical rule ‘less is more’ (Tacitus again) often kicks in. By that I mean less effort and energy can have a bigger impact on an audience.

To illustrate this point, I’ll construct a ridiculous scenario. Imagine a member of the public shouting from a street-corner that a group of little green men from Mars have landed in a UFO and are living in a secret underground location with the assistance of the government.

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Next, let’s take, for the sake of argument, two extremes in the range of responses from the government:

  • Silence (or close to it); or
  • A big response, with a room full of senior officials at a big press conference. The president loudly says: “There are no little green men, there never have been any little green men, and we don’t have an underground bunker for them. There is, and never has been a UFO. And (raising his voice) I can’t make this point any clearer than that.”

In the first case, as Tacitus would say, interest would fade. But in the second instance, people would become fascinated by the spectacle of the big response. In fact, the bigger the response, the greater the credibility the accusation will be given.

So when has a response worked? There aren’t all that many great examples, but the case of British Liberal politician Paddy Ashdown provides one. On Feb 6, 1992 a story broke in The Sun newspaper of his affair with his secretary Patricia Howard. The headline read: ‘It’s Paddy Pantsdown’, which went down in journalistic history as one of the funniest and memorable headlines ever. It was neat attack.

Ashdown managed an equally effective counter with words along the lines of: ‘I won’t comment on it. It is a family matter for me and my wife to sort out.’ What happened next? Absolutely nothing (and that’s the main point). Media interest simply faded away.

Ashdown’s ‘I won’t comment on it’ was taken as: ‘I am commenting on it. I did it. Hey come on guys, none of us are perfect, so now leave me alone. I won’t lie. I won’t get loud and angry. I won’t play the game you want me to play.’

Never underestimate the potency of using an unusual angle of attack; and if it is combined with a bit of humour, then better still.

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