When Silence Is The Best Strategy (Robert Coon On Politics)

"If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all."  

I think we’ve all heard a version of that principle — from a parent, a teacher or Thumper the Rabbit in the Disney classic "Bambi." 

While it’s awfully good advice, many of us – myself included – sometimes struggle with living it out, whether in our daily personal interactions or in social media. 

The rapid, widespread adoption of social media has unquestionably changed how we interact. It’s changed how we communicate with family and friends, how businesses communicate with customers, and how political campaigns communicate with voters and the media.

In politics, social media has gone from an afterthought to one of the most useful tools a campaign has in its chest. Sites like Facebook and Twitter not only give campaigns the means to communicate with targeted audiences regularly, directly and relatively cheaply, but they also enable them to create a sense of community with supporters, donors and —  perhaps most importantly — undecided voters. 

Social media also helps campaigns tactically by allowing them to respond to breaking news in real-time and by broadening their communications network to reach wider audiences. With the corresponding rise of blogs and online news, campaigns now have a readily available means of getting news releases, statements and other campaign announcements into the public realm.

But for all of the benefits of social media and the real-time communications apparatus it has spawned, there are potential pitfalls. Chief among them is the perceived need to publicly respond to every comment, every statement and every speech made by the opposition during a campaign. The temptation that many campaigns face is to not let any positive development go unanswered — or any negative event unpublicized — or the day is lost. And when campaigns focus their social media and communications efforts too much on capturing a "gotcha" moment, many times they end up off message and out of sorts.

Take for example the recent political communications blunder surrounding the launch of U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor’s television ad, "North Star," in which the Democrat conveyed his faith in God and the Bible. 

For some inexplicable reason, the National Republican Senatorial Committee felt compelled to criticize Pryor via Twitter for the ad, seeking to score a “gotcha” moment by citing Pryor’s previous, conflicting comments on the Bible.

Not only did the jab backfire on the NRSC, it put the campaign of Pryor’s Republican opponent in the difficult and undesirable position of cleaning up someone else’s PR blunder. To their credit, Congressman Tom Cotton’s team handled the situation masterfully, with Cotton Communications Director David Ray telling The Hill: "That is an incredibly bizarre and offensive email from the NRSC’s press secretary. We should all agree that America is better off when all our public officials in both parties have the humility to seek guidance from God."

Another example of overzealous campaign social media gone wrong occurred during last year’s U.S. Senate campaign in New Jersey. During a televised debate, candidate Steve Lonegan’s campaign tweeted what they thought was a witty zinger criticizing their opponent Cory Booker’s foreign policy positions. Instead, it was widely viewed as inappropriate and racially insensitive.

It’s easy to get caught in political gamesmanship. And while political campaigns can be diametrically opposed on a host of issues, in reality it simply isn’t necessary to find fault in every single thing your opponent says or does. It’s that kind of narrow thinking and acting that drives much of the public’s cynicism and disinterest for politics.

Don’t get me wrong; these days campaigns must be willing and able to engage in effective, rapid-response social media activities and show voters how their candidate contrasts with the opposition. That’s Politics 101. 

But as they strive to be the fastest, wittiest and most cunning in their responses, sometimes campaign PR pros forget that discretion can be the better part of valor, and that in some cases silence is the better part of communication.

(Robert Coon is a partner at Impact Management Group, a public relations, public opinion and public affairs firm in Little Rock and Baton Rouge, La. You can follow him on Twitter at RobertWCoon. His column appears every other Wednesday in the weekly Government & Politics e-newsletter. You can subscribe for free here.)