Communication is everything in the process of electing a new Commander in chief. Who will finally be inaugurated as the forty fourth President on the 20th January 2009 is still very much an open issue. In the race for the presidency, the contestants are relying heavily on Marcom as a means to bring their messages across the nation.

On the battleground there are two democratic combattants. This since the Republican candidate John McCain already has won more than the 1191 delegates needed to secure the Republican nomination. Who he will meet in the final contest is yet to be decided. So far, democrat senator Barack Obama has been more successful in raising funds and consequently he has been able to use more advertising than his democrat opponent Hillary Clinton. Clinton has thereby been forced to use less expensive means of communication such as PR. And in order to achieve maximum effect out of their PR efforts, Clinton’s campaign strategists have finally started using negative campaigning. One may wonder what kept them from using it before, a wish to loose?

The powers of negative campaigning are well documented so it should be considered as just one tool among many others. Becoming the nominee of your party calls for extraordinary skills in marketing communication and winning the presidential election demands even more. Therefore a modern president candidate cannot afford to not use the entire arsenal of communication strategies and techniques when taking on an opponent. In light of this the positive properties of negative campaigning becomes very appealing. Negative campaigning has the potential advantage of inducing doubt, disbelief and uncertainty in the voters’ perception of the opponent. Moreover, if conducted properly the subject of the attack will have a hard time defending him/herself. On the other hand, carried out in a sloppy way it will most definitely backfire at you.

One recent example of negative campaigning that backfired was when the conservatives in Spain wrongly blamed ETA for the terrorist attack in 2004, just three days before the election. The conservatives who were in power at the time continued blaming ETA even as evidence mounted that Islamic militants in some way were involved. Blaming ETA was more favourable from a conservative perspective. Pointing out Islamic militants as the perpetrators would have been to acknowledge that Spain had become a target for al-Qaida becasue of the government’s support of the Iraq war. Though, the conservatives failed to induce doubt, disbelief and uncertainty since it became rather obvious that ETA was not involved in the attack. The conservatives was slightly ahead in some polls but this major mistake was more than enough to expeditiously hand over the victory to the Socialists.

A few years ago I had the opportunity to discuss around negative campaigning and in particular how to counterargue negative statements with Merrie Spaeth, Director of Media Relations during President Ronald Reagan’s administration. We both shared the same view that in order to reduce the damage of negative campaigning one ought to avoid using words, phrases or the like that the opponent is trying to “stick” on to you. Instead the one under attack should attempt to turn the entire issue around and to one’s own advantage. Now, this doesn’t even sound easy so you may just understand the full complexity of mastering this technique. One vital point is to have your own communication strategy prepared and have it ready to be used towards the “opponent”, preferably at a time of your choosing. Furthermore, flexibility is another crucial factor. One has to be flexible enough to act upon opinions, questions or statements that the opponent is firing back and integrate that into one’s own communication.
/Carl Patrik
Stics – Stockholm Institute of Communication Science 2008