Dear CMO:

Shout “that man is an axe-murderer!” in a courtroom. The defense attorney will bolt upright and splutter, “Objection! My client is NOT an axe-murderer! This is a tax evasion case!” You can then smoothly withdraw the statement, knowing the jury will hear nothing else for the duration except the echo of your words in their ears. The media will dutifully report with Pavlovian consistency on the “reputed axe-murderer” for weeks to come. Regardless of the verdict, the case is closed.

The defendant may never have actually hefted an axe in his life; the problem is that he looked like he fit the part. Blame it on the crazy eyes or the facial twitch. Something met expectations and the idea sparked something in the imagination. The defendant was dead the minute he was accused, and he was doubly dead when his attorney denied him being one.

Which brings us to the present and our topic of the day. Incendiary statements are doubly powerful when they are not only vivid but believable enough to be plausible. This isn’t a given. Believability requires a preconception, imagination, and of course the spark that sets it all off.

Incendiary statements are hard to shake, regardless of context or contrition. Don Imus probably hasn’t lost any of his devoted fans because they don’t believe he’s a racist. If you’ve heard his show, you know he isn’t a Howard Stern or a Michael Savage, but a very smart and politically oriented talk radio personality with a caustic wit. There’s a world of difference between the context and delivery of his statement, inappropriate as it was, and Michael Richards’ full-on hate-filled tirade. But to those who know nothing about him, it seems like he could be a racist – after all, he’s described in the media as a “shock jock” and appears to the world to be an old white guy in a cowboy hat. Race is a delicate topic in America and the tolerance for error is near zero. And so, he is now looking for newer venues for his radio show.

Examples abound in the public policy world, from the casual acknowledgement that “the debate is over” on global warming to the discovery there is virtually no voter fraud in the country. Incendiary statements abound, particularly in emotionally charged environments like politics. They sound good, they are plausible, and therefore, they are hard to shake. So they stick.

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Key Takeaways:

> It seems the best way of dealing with an incendiary statement aimed at your forehead is to redirect the comment onto safer ground without restating the charges. In response to “that man is an axe murderer,” you might respond, “as a life-long devoted environmentalist, my client has never physically touched a tree killing device in his life – he’s Pro Tree, as a matter of fact – and if my colleague on the opposing bench would stop making blatantly anti-arborial references and sober up, he’d have known that. I won’t say my colleague is reckless… or a tree killer himself… but his comments were inappropriate.” Or words to that affect. You get the point. Adapt to your own needs.

> Getting angry will often make matters far worse. Look no further than the previously unheard of JL Kirk Associates for a cautionary tale in how not to respond to an angry blogger with an incendiary agenda. Don’t punch out the tar baby. Wave at it from a distance and give your side of the story in a really nice way.

> Clearly, there’s ample opportunity to use incendiary words for less than honorable purposes. However, we can all agree that it is perfectly ethical and good to frame the conversation in the market to your best advantage. I wrote about this in Killing Giants under the “Thin Ice” strategy.

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Incoming incendiary attacks must be addressed immediately with equal vividness and enough slight of hand to move the audience’s attention to a place more suited to your needs. Outbound incendiary statements must not only be vivid – they must capture the imagination of the audience – but they must be plausible – they need to sound like they could be true. Are you competing against the iPod? Pointing out that a good 50% of the revenue they collect from you goes to pay for a glitzy ad campaign designed to take your mind off the absurdly high retail price might make a potential consumer think twice. They might be persuaded to look for an alternative that delivers more performance for less money. Incendiary and believable.

Smile and play nice. Complement your adversaries. Answer the question you want to answer, not the one they plant to make you look foolish. Reframe the conversation and let them try to play on the thin ice of your own choosing.

Let’s keep in mind that even though your opponents may flatter you, their words may be leading you, and your market, somewhere else. Never forget that “Brutus is an honorable man.”


Copyright © 2007 Stephen Denny