This statement should be hung from the wall of every PR and public affairs professional as a simple reminder that the words you use to describe, define or deride something are long lasting and can have unintended consequences. Sounds like commonsense, right? Tell that to Ted Cruz.
Cruz’s use of the term “NY values” on a Texas debate stage wasn’t an ad lib or a slip of the tongue. It was a calculated, pre-rehearsed line to create a contrast between himself and Donald Trump. The phrase was a thinly veiled code word that played right to the base of his support in southern states, a blatant attempt at political pandering. It made the former campaign press secretary in me cringe because I knew the campaign had nothing more to back the phrase up than the phrase itself.
At the time, it must have looked like a slam dunk for Cruz. After all, he wasn’t thinking New York voters would be critical to his chances of securing the GOP nomination. He had a southern strategy in place that couldn’t go wrong….until it did. Fast forward a few weeks and with the race for delegates in disarray, Ted Cruz trails both Donald Trump and John Kasich in a critical New York primary dominated by talk about what else? New York values.
Don’t Let the Opposition Define Your Words for You
What does a vague term like “New York values” actually mean? For Cruz, it meant all those things antithetical to what his campaign considers down home red blooded American values. (Cruz is now narrowing in on a definition by saying it meant “liberal policies.”) That’s still not good enough for a hungry conflict-happy news media that is coincidentally largely headquartered where? New York City.
Immediately after it was uttered, #newyorkvalues became a trending topic on Twitter, with thousands of people offering their own, mostly negative definitions of what Ted Cruz actually meant. The prevalence of the term on social media was expected and largely won’t impact his campaign. However, by using a vague term, Cruz invited his opposition to define its meaning and by extension, define him as a candidate. You now see activists of all stripes claiming that the line was actually meant as a subtle attack against their particular constituencies. Cruz’s pithy debate soundbite is now a massive vulnerability for the campaign and a lucrative fundraising opportunity for everyone else.
Never allow your words to be defined by the opposition. This is critical in politics as well as public relations. When you own the lexicon, you drive the debate.
Time, Place and Purpose
The Cruz example is unique given its circumstances. Presidential candidates go under the microscope for nearly everything they say. Cruz’s comment at the debate immediately resonated across the broad audience of debate viewers and national press. Most public affairs clients would do backflips for that kind of instant recognition. However, in most cases, the audiences we deal with for issue-specific messages is much smaller. That’s not always a bad thing. Remember that there is a time, a place and a purpose for everything.
If you have a potentially controversial term, a phrase or a definition that you want to test, be smart about it. Choose a time and place that works in your favor. Pick a friendly audience and one that is controllable to the extent any audience actually is. Finally have a purpose. Insert the test language in a larger message. Don’t make it the central point of message, but instill and surround it with other purposeful language. You will know if the test phrase resonates with your audience immediately. If it doesn’t, you will have protected yourself by making it just another supporting message in a larger narrative.
Just be Smart About it and follow the Bambi example
Above all else, be smart about the words you use. Understand the importance of context and subtext. Don’t speak in generalities or you could fall into the Cruz trap.
And in the end, just remember this: Thumper had it right. Sometimes….