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Home / News and Insights / Blogs / Public Affairs / 283: Beware of classic political deflection techniques

Whether it is stories of government plans to send asylum seekers to an island in the South Atlantic or Trump’s claims of voter fraud during the Presidential debates, it is easy to become distracted by such deflection techniques. Instead, take a breath before deciding if there is any impact on your campaign.

Governments and politicians will always try to dominate the news agenda in their own, not always positive, ways.  They need to capture the attention of voters. But there is also the seemingly increasing tendency to try to deflect attention. For those in public affairs, we need to be careful not to react, or overreact, in such circumstances. Sometimes simply staying quiet can be the best option.

Just take a look at the recent Trump-Biden Presidential debate. The Trump approach seemed to be a mix of trying to put people off from voting and creating the appearance of a ‘strong man’ to appeal to his base. Some of the more incendiary comments were then lost in the outrage expressed by the style of the debate rather than the content.

So what are some of the classic deflection techniques and how should you think about them?

  • Outlandish claims – this includes phrases such as ‘world’s best’, ‘biggest ever’ etc. This is often used when some other part of a programme is not working so well, so the politician wants you to look at the shiny new thing instead.
  • Huge numbers – by using figures that many cannot simply comprehend, it sounds really impressive. The classic example of this being the number shown on the side of the Brexit bus.
  • Radical ideas – politicians will put out ideas that seem designed to appeal to their core electorate. They may never actually come to pass but even to be seen as ‘thinking the unthinkable’ will appeal to some. When they don’t happen then they can complain about being blocked by ‘the establishment’ but ‘we tried our best’.

When attempting to deflect, it is always better if there is at least an element of truth. So Trump’s recent claim of voter fraud, Trump marked ballots being found dumped, seems to have been down to a mistake by a new administration official. But it doesn’t matter. The fact that the agenda is being dominated and those issues are being discussed means that the politician has succeeded. Again, the Brexit bus worked so effectively because it lead to a discussion about UK contributions to the EU.

From the public affairs perspective, many of these types of discussions are just too political. To start getting engaged in any way risks the prospect of being ‘used’ by one side or the other. That may do your reputation no good and may not help your campaign either. On some issues, such as those related to the ‘culture wars’, the idea may be to get a reaction to help prove a point.

But there will be occasions when you may choose to make a stand, these could include:

  • using the opportunity to raise your profile;
  • correcting misinformation and / or ‘putting the record straight’;
  • offering support for the plans; and
  • combating any negative implications, maybe for certain groups that could be impacted.

So intervention comes with its risks but that does not mean that issues should go unchallenged. Talk to others outside your organisation about their views. Always consider the motivations of those trying to deflect and beware that they may want outrage. Don’t fall into any obvious traps.

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