Responding to Political Attacks with Kristina Keats CW 40- transcript

Responding to Political Attacks

John Tsarpalas: In last week’s podcast, Commonwealthy #39 Truthful Facts Aren’t Negatives, we talked about what you should put out that people might consider negative, but are facts and things that they need to know about your opponent. These are things that are important and help them make a good decision about the quality and personality of this person you are running against, especially if it has something to do with the office that they are going to be running for.

We talked about a guy who was running on civility for his town and trying to put civility back into the discussion at the village board. However, he had gotten into a fist fight with his neighbor. We also talked about the person who is on the school board and who was up for re-election. But they also had had an underage drinking party at their home.

Those are important facts for the voters to understand. But today, we turn the tables. What happens when somebody starts putting out things about you? How do you respond to that attack? Even if you consider it a lie and an untruth, you do need to respond and deal with it.

So today Tina Keats and I are going to talk about responding to attacks in Commonwealthy #40.

Kristina Keats: The other problem is what do you do when your opponent puts something completely untrue out about you? Again, depending on what the issue is, you want to combat it with truthful documents if you have them.

John Tsarpalas: Right.

Kristina Keats: Here’s the thing. Your opponent could say, “You defaulted on a loan.” And he doesn’t put any document out. How do you prove a negative? How do you say, “Well, there is no documents? Where are the documents?” Because you can’t find a document that proves you never defaulted on a loan.

That is much harder to do. What you need in that case is to try and find perhaps experts. In that case, for example, a well known lawyer in town who will make a statement, “There is no legal document supporting this allegation that he defaulted on a loan.” So again, you use the same technique to refute what someone said.

Unfortunately they make the statement and everybody hears about the negative statement. A good example: Romney never paid his taxes. Unfortunately, in that case, Romney never responded if you will recall. He just let it stay out there.

What he needed to do was to (for example, this is what I would have done if I had been advising him) take a stack three fall tall or whatever it comes up to of all the tax returns you filed. It could be all your federal tax returns, all your state tax returns, all the tax returns for every office you ever held, etc. If possible, ask the taxing authorities to send a letter saying that you have paid all your taxes through 2012.

John Tsarpalas: Yeah, you are not going to get that in a timely manner. But you need to boldly say, “This is a lie. I have paid all my taxes.” I think you need to be very straight forward versus “They can’t show any documentation proving it.”

Kristina Keats: Again, if you have a prop, let’s say, in the case of Romney of a three feet tax return of every tax return he’s ever filed, as he’s standing there saying, “I have paid every tax I ever owed and here are the documents,” then some people might bother to go through the documents to see.

He doesn’t have to have every single thing that is there. But the front page it says, “The 2015 Massachusetts state income tax” or something that supports what he is saying. If all you do is stand up and say, “That’s not true. He’s lying about me,” you’ve already lost. You need to come back with something that really makes the person who is making the allegation look like a fool.

It is sometimes hard to do. There was one case, and this was a Republican who accused his opponent of never paying child support. They had a press conference and the Democrat’s ex-wife stood there next to her ex-husband saying, “He’s made every child support payment since we’ve separated.” Well done. His people would certainly see an ex-wife situation as not someone who is necessarily supportive.

John Tsarpalas: Right.

Kristina Keats: So they wouldn’t say it if it wasn’t true. And that was the end of the Republican candidate. He lost big time because he made an allegation that wasn’t true. So you have to respond. You can’t leave it out there.

One of the good things at least in the states that have early voting is in the old days, a lot of the nasty, political negative, untruthful information was sent in the mail piece that arrived the Friday before Election Day on Tuesday. Well, with early voting, it is a lot harder. I’ve read statistics and in some states fifty percent of the voters are voting early.

So the impact of that kind of thing won’t work because if you are going to say something nasty that you want to impact voting, you kind of have to do it thirty days before the election. And then that gives the person plenty of time to respond.

The important thing is you need to respond. You need to respond with as much third party information as you possibly can, whether it is a lawyer saying, “There is no legal documentation that supports this. This is not true,” or things like that. I really think you can’t just stand up and say, “It’s not true” because it is then his word against your word or her word against your word.

The problem is the reason why negative advertising works is because people easily believe the worst about other people. It’s what gossip is all about. “Did you hear?” People like gossip. They like to think that they are superior to other people. That’s what gossip does for you.

So it is natural for people to believe bad things about other people. It is not natural for them to say, “Well, I am sure there were extenuating circumstances,” or, “That doesn’t seem like the person I know.” That is not the nature of humans. You can’t leave it out there. You have to refute it so that the negative, if it is untruthful, will bounce back against the person who did it as opposed to the person who received it.

John Tsarpalas: Okay. Let’s talk about ways to respond, the medium. We are talking about mailing. We are talking about live phone calls with the real person calling. We are talking about automated calls. There’s lots of possible ways to respond. It depends on the timing, how much time you have, and how much budget you have.

Every campaign needs a line in their budget for emergency situations like this. Figure out you are going to have one or two response pieces you are going to have to come back with.

Kristina Keats: Right. Nothing is more powerful than one-on-one contact if you can do that. It is harder and harder today with people not answering their phones and not having landlines, although I think that a lot of companies have put a lot of money into getting cell phone numbers for people.

Politics is not subject to the Do Not Call. That’s really important to know. It’s a First Amendment thing. They cannot tell you they can’t try to talk to people about politics.

Again, the best thing to have, if you can, is a third party example that what is being said is not true. When you can give that as information, it triples the impact of your response.

John Tsarpalas: Right.

Kristina Keats: I’ll give you an example. In 2000, the Republican candidate for Congress was Mark Kirk. It was an open seat. His opponent was running ads on TV saying that Mark Kirk wanted to end Social Security. They were running them mostly during the news programs because they knew that’s when a lot of voters pay attention.

John Tsarpalas: Right, especially seniors.

Kristina Keats: Fortunately there had been a Chicago Tribune article that had said, “This is totally untrue.” It was a short article. There is more and more of that- the fact checkers, the Pinocchio’s, and all that stuff.

In the process of making phone calls, we would find voters that said, “Oh, I was going to support Mark Kirk, but I can’t support him now since it was on the news that he is going to end Social Security.” This is totally typically. A voter sees an ad that is running during the news and gets to conflated with being the news.

This is what was happening. We saw it in his numbers where they were going up and all of the sudden they started going down. Fortunately because they were running the ads for three weeks before the election we had time to respond.

Our response was, “That’s not true. Let me read to you what the Chicago Tribune said about this.” And then you just read the short little article. Then we’d say, “Would you like us to send a copy of this article from the Tribune?” Of course everybody wanted it.

What happened is anybody who had been duped by the ad into believing that negative thing about Mark Kirk were incensed. “How could she say things like that that aren’t true?” I’d say, “Well, it’s politics. You can say anything you want.”

That’s another thing. People don’t know that it is perfectly legal to lie in political ads. They somehow think that the liable laws and the defamation laws apply in politics and they don’t. They absolutely do not.

The only time you can ever have a case is if they say something in a political ad that harms you financially in a business or something. Then you can go after them. But it is so rare. It just doesn’t happen because the other thing is by the time you go after somebody who has liable you, they’ve already won the election so it doesn’t matter.

Keep that in mind. It is legal to say anything you want in politics. It doesn’t have to be true. But the average voter doesn’t know that. They honestly think that you are supposed to tell the truth.

Anyway, what happens when they find out they’ve been duped is not only do you secure that voter, but I remember one case of a woman who was not an activist (she was just a voter we called up) who said, “I can’t believe that. I am going to tell everyone in my garden club.”

She has probably thirty or forty people in her garden club. She was so mad that she was misled that now she is going to go tell everybody in the garden club who is going to go home and also tell their spouses. That is how we turned that around. From the moment we started dealing with it in that way, the numbers reversed and started going back up for Congressman Kirk.

That’s just an example. But again, it’s the same rule. Have the third party and then get it out. Now, in today’s world you have Twitter, you have Facebook, you have email, and you have robo-calls. When something negative comes out against you, you need to use every single media source you have.

Again, you shouldn’t just send a tweet, “They’re lying.” No, send a tweet, “The allegation is untrue. Go to www” and then cite a website or something where they can go look at the documents to see the original documents or whatever you are going to put up.

Most people will never go, but they know if you’ve cited it, there must be something there. So that’s why the citations that John was talking about are so essential. If you don’t have a citation, then you have to get the closest thing to a citation: a legal opinion that we’ve searched the law records and there is absolutely no evidence in any legal entity.

John Tsarpalas: Right. Or someone who is trusted in the community, someone who has a reputation for being honest or a straightforward person or something to be your spokesperson. If someone that people love and adore are on an automated call… I always think of Mike Ditka because he was so effective around here. “This is Mike Ditka. I know this person and this allegation is false. I stand with him.” Something like that.

Kristina Keats: Although don’t ever start a robo-call with “Hi, this is Mike Ditka” because they will click. They’ll know it is a robo-call. You would do a question. Remember a robo-call is like a radio ad.

The difference is with a radio ad, people are listening to it while they are doing other things like driving or walking around or whatever and they are not going to click off an ad. But a robo-call is so easy to click off because it can be on your answering machine. “Hi, this is Mike Ditka.” Click. “Hi, this Mike Ditka.” Click.

It needs to be creative in the sense that you ask a question. “Did you know…” or something. It depends on the circumstances. But be creative. Try different ideas. Trouble shoot in a room with three or four people and throw out ideas of how you could use a robo-call to attack this problem.

And then you can test them. Send two hundred robos with somebody with this opening line and two hundred with that opening line and see which one they listen to. It is cheap. Two hundred robo-calls will cost you twenty bucks max.

But you have to use every single source you’ve got to combat the negative. If you think about what happened when they accused George Bush of going AWOL in the National Guard, they started documenting it.

The document that Dan Rather had was not typed on a typewriter, which is what they would have used in 1970. It came off of a computer. That was the first thing. It was not talking about the allegation, but it was third party documentation that this was false. And then they got the wife of the man who supposedly typed the letter. She testified that her husband never typed because he was long dead.

It all started to unravel because there were forensics that disproved what they were trying to say. This is not a presidential race.

John Tsarpalas: Right. We are talking about someone running for school board.

Kristina Keats: Right, but you don’t know what they might say.

John Tsarpalas: I think we also need to back up though. In a smaller race like this, is it better to just ignore it? It depends. It depends on who is hearing it and how broad it has been put out there.

You might be better off to ignore it because, as you say, it’s hard to say, “Well, he didn’t beat me” or “He doesn’t beat his wife.” You are just spreading the thought that he is a wife beater. So you need to think about maybe you don’t want to respond if it’s not widespread.

Kristina Keats: That’s the key: if it is not widespread. The problem in the smaller races like school board-

John Tsarpalas: Is the word of mouth.

Kristina Keats: What I have observed is the negative is never in public. They do gossiping. They’ll have a phone tree for the PTA and they will call everybody on the PTA who calls everybody and says something that is not true. That is harder.

If you are running for school board, as an example, and that is happening with the PTA, first off my experience has been in general if you are fiscally responsible person running for school board, you are constituency is not going to be the parents. Think about it. The parents are the ones who for the most part would have love to have all the tax payers spend lots of money on their kids.

So if you have a phone tree going to against you in the school, then there is probably not a way you can break into that unless you are on the PTA, too. If you can do that, then fine. If you can use that tool, then you use it.

In that case, you don’t want to spend a lot of energy going after people who are not your natural constituency anyway because they are saying negative things about you. In that case, ignore it and go to all the other voters.

Almost in every community in the United States, there are a whole lot more voters in the community who don’t have children in school than who do. Once you hit forty-five or fifty, you probably are not a parent of school children anymore.

John Tsarpalas: But you did hit on a good point. Find those groups that are gossiping and put positive gossip in about you and good things about yourself out there. Try to find those influencers.

This is probably getting off the topic of negative ads and responding. It is just about winning elections. It is just like high school. It is just getting in with the cliques and letting the cliques spread the word.

Kristina Keats: Right, if you can do that. And that is the thing. Only you can analyze your voter population and look for ways to connect to people. Every community is different. You know your community better than anyone else. You know if the Rotary is really powerful. What about the Catholic Church?

There are so many ways to connect to people. As a candidate, you need to be creative about figure out how to do that. Get your proxies in every single group. Get ten people active in the Catholic Church who you know are supporting you who will get the world out there and ten people in Chamber of Commerce. Do you have connections in the PTA, etc?

You have to network. It is all about networking.

John Tsarpalas: Right. Let me throw in a thought here. It doesn’t hurt to dig around on your own side. Have someone go see what they can find on you. I’ve done this on candidates. I started googling and started looking at this. It’s not the first page of Google; it’s the twentieth page. It’s way back in there.

You find the story of when they were sixteen years old, they vandalized and were arrested or something. And then you’ve got to clean that up. Let’s talk about that. What do you do if you’ve got negatives? How do you clean it up?

Kristina Keats: Well, I think the smartest thing to do is don’t try and hide them. Don’t try and pretend they are not there. Don’t bury them. Figure out what the extenuating circumstances were, like you committed a burglary when you were fourteen or whatever.

The best thing to do is, “Yeah, I had a lot of problems when I was a teenager. Through a lot of hard work and the love of my spouse and my friends and family I have overcome that. I am not that person anymore.”

Most people love a story of redemption. They are going to forgive. But if you try and bury it or try and pretend it didn’t happen and not talk about it, then you make it worse.

I remember that U.S. Senate candidate who thought he had sealed the divorce records in California, which he did. He sealed them, but corruption. A judge decided, “Well, you are running for office. It is not sealed anymore.”

John Tsarpalas: Yeah, well, the judge was a Democrat. The candidate was a Republican. Liberal state. They didn’t care. They were out to get him. And newspaper was the one that drove all of that. It was the Chicago Tribune.

Kristina Keats: Right, they were doing the Freedom of Information Act. It would have been much better if, when it all started (because it all started eight months before it finally came out), if he had a press conference and said, “When my wife and I divorced, there were, like many people who divorce, allegations made in the papers. But here’s my wife [because she would have done it] standing next to me saying they were not true.” Then by the time it comes out, it is old news.

John Tsarpalas: And if you can’t get the wife to stand next to you, you at least start painting the scenario that it was a contested divorce and not very amicable and there are going to be false things in there.

Kristina Keats: Actually in that case, there was worse stuff that didn’t come out, in my opinion. The wife had an order of protection where he couldn’t see his son alone, which I thought that was a lot worse than some of the sex stuff that came out. And that turned out to not be true. She did it to get leverage. Eventually he was able to see his son alone, which is evidence that the allegation was not true.

So trying to pretend and suppress it is just not going to work. It is going to come out. You are better off acknowledging it and doing the best you can about what happened. The Clinton model is to just keep dripping it out, which I don’t think that works so well. It keeps it on the front pages a lot longer.

John Tsarpalas: Yeah. But people become so sick of it that they just don’t hear it anymore. They don’t care.

Kristina Keats: Right, they don’t hear it. But it still is in the fabric of the campaign there.

John Tsarpalas: Right, right. Well, you get it out early. You don’t wait until the last month.

Kristina Keats: Think of Obama when he wrote that book. He admitted in the book he smoked pot. Well, once you’ve put in the book (I said in the book I smoked pot), then what are you going to do? “Obama smoked pot.” Well, yeah, he said so.

John Tsarpalas: Yeah, who cares?

Kristina Keats: “I don’t smoke pot anymore. I smoked it when I was young. I admit it.” So it diffuses it. Also, we are talking presidential, which is not what our candidates are looking at. But the principals sort of apply.

And it is a double standard because Ben Carson wrote about things in his book and they tried to trip him up and try to make it say things it didn’t say. But I think the good news is it’s met with skeptical media. So that’s the good news.

John Tsarpalas: Okay. So let’s try and pull all of this back together because we’ve been down a lot of different paths here. The bottom line is you need to put out the truths. The concept of negative is only if you are out there lying or trying to be underhanded or unethical. You are trying to put out truthful information to the voters so they can make a solid, educated decision on who to vote for.

And you are trying to protect your reputation when they come out with garbage against you. You do that through different media. You need to think about how you are going to respond.

If you are in a situation where you can use newspaper and earned media, that’s great. But often there is not enough time and/or you have trouble getting into a paper. In a small race, it’s often ignored. Perhaps you are putting out a quick mailing or a letter. Perhaps it is a letter to the editor that could get published quickly if there is not going ot be a story.

You are going to put something up on your own website. You are going to try and tweet. You are going to try to use social media to get things out about it. You are going to use automated calls, cleverly written ones.

Alright, so we are going to respond with facts. Consider should you respond. How widespread is this? You are going to respond with facts. You are going to respond with people that have credibility. You are going to think about what type of mediums you are going to use to respond with.

And you need to be prepared to respond. Have some people who can help you with that. Have some money set aside for that purpose. You are planning that you are going to get attacked. You don’t just ignore that and deal with it later. There is always going to be something popping up.

And that’s part of the game. Don’t freak out. Just deal with it. It is part of politics. Hopefully you live in a community where you are not going to get attacked. Hopefully things are still civil. However, I was a Boy Scout. Remember the motto: Be prepared.

I am always reachable to help you. I am available to answer questions by email at And I am available for coaching. I offer a free half hour consultation. I’ll let you know if I can be of service to you or not. So if I can be of assistance, please let me know. Thanks for listening!

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