Political attacks on unaffiliated people or groups are nothing new - remember Anita Hill? But campaigns and commentators alike should now expect significant blowback from the people or organizations they assail, as well as their netroots-emboldened supporters, when they go after a political civilian to score points.
The latest case in point is Rush Limbaugh's misogynistic attack on Georgetown University law student Sandra Fluke, who testified before a congressional committee in favor of student health insurance plans at her school covering contraception. Politicos, columnists, and the public expressed outrage over Limbaugh's attack not be-cause he said something outrageous or distasteful - he does that with impunity - but because his target was a civilian.
But a funny thing happened: Fluke fought back. She appeared on TV and wrote guest Op-Eds. Keeping the story alive, supportive groups began online petitions urging companies to stop advertising on Limbaugh's show and for radio networks to drop his program. Within two weeks of his attack, dozens of companies, from AOL to ProFlowers, decided his show was no longer a fit for their brand.
The lesson: go after a political bystander with language many people wouldn't use in front of their mothers, and expect a quick, harsh, and Web-based condemnation - and to be hit in the wallet.
Of course, the lesson extends to both sides of the political aisle. With Mitt Romney in the spotlight as the front-runner for the GOP nomination, private equity has been a favorite punching bag of the left. Romney, of course, made millions after founding Bain Capital in 1984. Years later, it is one of the world's largest private equity funds. There's nothing illegal or unethical about that, but when a candidate has managed a private equity firm for years and then runs for president during a time of high unemployment, the opposing political attacks practically write themselves.
However, Bain and the private equity industry at large are also pushing back. Bain's management drafted a letter to its investors last month that distanced the company from Romney, accused critics of having their facts wrong, and defended its job-creation record. Meanwhile, the Private Equity Growth Capital Council also launched a robust campaign earlier this year called "Private Equity at Work" that dismissed negative characterizations of the industry.
A once-obscure law school student and an extremely successful private equity firm have little in common. Still, public affairs pros and media opinion-makers should take note: if you plan to build a strawman to attack, be ready for that strawman to fight back.
Frank Washkuch is news editor of PRWeek. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.