Here is a simple, step-by-step, guide to winning a public relations war.
1. Be a victim.
The world loves a victim. Victims are by definition helpless, so they need someone to help them (see 2a), and there are no shortage of do-gooders out there looking for victims to help (whether or not they can actually help them). It doesn’t matter if you actually were a victim, if you were a victim yesterday, 20 years ago, 200 years ago, or if your great-grandparents were victims (see 3b). If you can be perceived as a victim (and continue to be perceived as one), that’s a very important step, which leads nicely into …
2. Position, Position, Position.
2a. Make asymmetry work for you.
Being a victim is just the first step in establishing your position against your opponents. The best position is to be seen as David against Goliath, i.e. that your opponent is much bigger and more powerful than you. If they actually are an opaque autocracy, that’s a bonus, but not necessary – you can always accuse them of that down the track and be believed (see 3c). Being an underdog is almost as good as being a victim. Being both is even better.
2b. Be on the correct side.
It’s great if you can establish your position as “progressive” against an opponent who is perceived as “conservative”. In a world that celebrates change and anything new and different, and where it costs less to make a new one than fix an old one, conservative is seen as old, and outdated. It’s essential that your opponent be seen that way. If they actually are that way, that’s a bonus.
2c. Use a proxy.
If you can position your dispute similar to another well-known one (that was or is likely to be resolved in your favour), that is fantastic. That way, you can associate yourself with the “winner” of that dispute, and associate your opponent with the “loser”. This can help you look better than you are, and allow you to make your opponent look worse than they really are (see 3c). It also makes it easier for the public to “understand” your dispute, in the way you want them to.
2d. Don’t engage.
Some opponents may be sophisticated enough to want to engage with you, either directly or through a mediating party, to resolve the conflict. Don’t. Ever. Never. Doing this has the risk of levelling the playing field, which you don’t want. If you are ever forced into engaging, ensure that the most you agree to at any meeting is to meet again and continue the “process”. In the meantime, the PR work continues. If your opponent digs in, battens down the hatches, and doesn’t want to engage, then use that against them and declare your desire to engage.
3. Win the communications battle.
3a. The credibility battle.
This is essential. You have to make sure that your message is heard and your opponents’ message is not. By “heard”, I mean that your message has to reach lots of people, and have more credibility than that of your opponents. Winning the credibility battle is essential, because then no matter what your opponent says, they will be ignored, and whatever you say will be celebrated.
3b. Keep it simple.
Keep your message simple and avoid too much detail. Details lead to questions that can cause you to trip up, so just gloss over them. Ideally, force your opponent into a position where they rely on details and nuances to justify their position. Then it becomes a battle of simple versus complex, and in general the simpler message is the one that gets through. Your opponent may stop responding for fear that anything they say will be dissected and used against them.
3c. Extend and amplify.
Once you have established credibility, it’s much easier to control the information that is disseminated, embellish at will, and throw in weak causal relationships that let your followers blindly jump to your own implied conclusions. This not just extends the conflict and burdens your opponent with even more accusations, it amplifies the opposition against them (see 4).
4. Engage useful idiots
4a. Fellow haters
There are lots of people around who don’t like your opponent, either for a similar reason as you, or for a completely different reason. But as the old adage goes, “my enemy’s enemy is my friend”, so these people can become valuable allies in the war. Getting them to make weak causal relationships between your conflict and their conflict is a great amplifier (see 3c). They will also see association with your cause as a way to amplify their own messages and push their own agendas.
4b. Fellow lovers
Some of these useful idiots will take your side because they have an affinity with a cause closely (or not so closely) linked to yours (See 2c). It really doesn’t matter how closely linked their cause is – once you sufficiently amplify and extend (3c), they will hop on the bandwagon and be your advocates.
This tried and true formula has been used very successfully in so many diverse causes and conflicts. Just have a look at many of the conflicts being played out in the media (the best place to run any conflict), and you will see many of the techniques I have mentioned in use.
A final word of warning: sometimes, if you start to believe your own bulls**t, things can turn against you and come crashing down. So do maintain a healthy dose of cynicism, and remember that it’s just fine to use people to aid your cause. After all, as a victim, you were used, so that’s just karma.