Communications to Build or Destroy

It would be incredibly difficult to find a strategic communications counselor to advise a client to repeat false information – especially if it could lead to reputational damage. It’s a no-brainer, really. The safe counsel is always to define yourself before opponents have the chance to do it for you.

Clients are advised all the time to be positive and proactive in communications. Ignore opponents and force the noise they make to be the sound of “one hand clapping” is traditionally sage advice. After all, when you engage and are defensive it can be assumed you are hiding something, or there is something to be defensive about.

Why breath life and credibility into a false premise?

Yet, in the midst of an attack from a competitor, or other opponent, often this very simple counsel becomes incredibly difficult to follow. It is human nature to want to answer questions and defend a position or idea.

It takes a unique discipline and sound strategy to expose an attacker’s own actions to subdue their behavior.

Recently the National Association of Scholars (NAS) exercised an innovative approach that allowed it to successfully defend its position, stop the attack (for now), and reestablish its core narrative in a positive and proactive way.

NAS is hosting a conference in February on the problem of “irreproducibility” in scientific research. The thought of this conference sparked an activist to use the coming event as leverage to attack NAS on a variety of fronts (many of which were based on a false premise) and demand the event be shut down and/or boycotted.

The attacker conveniently ignored the fact that speakers at the conference will represent a diverse set of opinions on the topic of scientific research. Further, they ignored the problematic results that manifest when fake science and failed science can still influence decisions, opinions, and behaviors.

Telling an incomplete story is risky as they soon discovered.

There are many questions on what to do about incomplete science and the conference is designed to consider how the scientific community can thoughtfully address it. Yet, the attacker chose to malign the event and its organizers instead of engaging on the substance of the argument.

The attacker contacted speakers and claiming this is a one-sided event with a political agenda and demanded they refuse to participate. Further, taking to social media the attacker made claims about the organization and event that would surely trouble anyone participating and cast doubt on the discussions from anyone who did.

NAS was forced to fight back – but how – especially when they did not want to seem defensive or give any credibility to these “bogus” arguments?

“When our opponent embraced the ‘cancel culture’ we knew we had the moral high ground,” Dr. Peter Wood, President of NAS, told me in in interview. “Rather than engage on the facts, reasonable people, who can have different opinions and civil disagreements, were told to ignore our quest for a robust dialogue. It is something that made our audience increasingly skeptical.”

Dr. Wood began writing the story, putting everything (including the nature of the false attacks) into an article published in The Wall Street Journal.

“Knowing what was being described about us had no basis in fact, we had to do something about it – because even if our opponent was remotely successful it could have devastating impacts on the progress we hope to make” Dr. Wood continued. “Scholars are curious people, when it is pointed out that someone is trying to hide information from them, they will wonder why.”

By putting all the facts on the table, and showing a counter to the claims made, NAS went on offense – with its strong defense. It was able to change focus of the argument by refusing to engage or give credibility to the negative attacks, but instead positively and proactively defining exactly what the organization was trying to do in a reasonable and thoughtful way.

And they won.

Soon after the article was published the attacker stated they would not be responding further. Additionally, the conference is getting more interest from a variety of journalists and thought leaders, each with unique opinions and strong positions.

“At NAS we will always welcome a robust dialogue. Without it, we deprive ourselves of ideas and considerations that can lead to possible solutions. We can learn from those who disagree, but everyone loses when ‘cancel culture’ takes over.”

This is a lesson all communicators can learn. By making a point reasonably and thoughtfully, a message has a chance of being considered (even when it is somewhat defensive.) The leadership and communicators at NAS took a risk by repeating some of the negative accusations that were leveled against it. However, by making its case reasonably and thoughtfully it deprived the false premises from catching on or having an impact among the speakers and other stakeholders.

It is easier to construct a positive image than to destroy an opponent. Does your communications strategy rely on builders or wrecking balls?

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