PAUL HOLMES: Businesses can't risk shaping opinions the way political campaigns stage their attacks

One of the reasons I get uneasy when PR pros talk about applying the techniques of the political-campaign realm to the corporate arena is that while politics is a zero-sum game, business is not.

One of the reasons I get uneasy when PR pros talk about applying the techniques of the political-campaign realm to the corporate arena is that while politics is a zero-sum game, business is not.

In a political campaign, you can use negative campaign tactics until you alienate 99% of the electorate, but if two of the three people who do bother to vote believe your candidate is slightly less dishonest than his opponent, you can still win. If you alienate 99% of your customers, it doesn't matter whether you have 33% of the remaining market or 100%; you've lost. I was reminded of this as I read a press release from the SUV Owners of America (SUVOA), demanding that opponents of sport utility vehicles curtail their criticism in the wake of an attack by the Earth Liberation Front (ELF), which torched an auto dealership in Southern California as part of its ongoing attack on SUV manufacturers. The press release was full of the kind of rhetoric one would expect to find in a political campaign. For example, Arianna Huffington is portrayed as a "zealot" for her criticism of SUVs, and accused of "encouraging" the ELF and "for providing moral cover for radical domestic terrorist groups" that vandalize dealerships and vehicles. The idea that Huffington and others are encouraging terrorists is valid only if you accept that supporters of a particular position are somehow responsible for the actions of everyone who shares their beliefs. Under that logic, anyone who spoke out against partial-birth abortions would be encouraging the bombing of abortion clinics, and anyone horrified by the attacks on the World Trade Center was complicit in the ensuing assaults on Arab immigrants. Of course, Huffington and her allies started the war of rhetorical excess, with an ad campaign accusing SUV owners of supporting terrorists (because SUVs guzzle gas, thus increasing our dependence on foreign oil). Taking an even broader view, the ads were themselves a parody of a GOP-sponsored campaign suggesting that opponents of drilling in the Alaskan wildlife refuge were supporting terrorism (because extracting our own oil from the Alaskan wilderness would reduce our dependence on foreign oil). There's enough overheated rhetoric to go around. The SUVOA stuff raises my hackles first because it's designed to stifle discussion about the safety and environmental performance of SUVs; second, because I have a nasty suspicion that the SUVOA takes its direction from manufacturers rather than owners (there's no word on the source of funding on its website); and third, because I don't think it serves the interest of the manufacturers to turn up the rhetorical heat even further.
  • Paul Holmes has spent the past 16 years writing about the PR business for publications including PRWeek, Inside PR, and Reputation Management. He is currently president of The Holmes Group and editor of www.holmesreport.com.

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