Counterpunching can be an effective strategy when attacked online, on TV or in print. But the counterpunch needs to pack some punch or else it may only serve to give more exposure to the original attack.
There is hardly a better example of an effective counterpunch than Missouri Senate candidate Jason Kander’s response to a TV ad by his incumbent opponent claiming he was soft on the Second Amendment. Kander, a 35-year-old former Army intelligence officer, produced a 30-second TV spot in which he assembles an AR-15 assault rifle blindfolded while explaining his views on guns.
He describes how he rode shotgun while serving in Afghanistan for unarmed convoys, supports the Second Amendment and favors background checks “so terrorists can’t get their hands on one of these.” The spot ends with Kander saying, “I approved this message, ‘cause I’d like to see Senator Blunt do this” as he places a round in the fully assembled rifle.
Kander didn’t unseat Blunt, who was seeking re-election to the US Senate with strong support from the National Rifle Association, but he didn’t lose because of his views on guns. His ad clearly set the record straight.
Donald Trump rode his impulsive counterpunching prowess through a crowded 2016 GOP presidential primary and ultimately to the White House. As a debate strategy, Trump’s counterpunches kept his adversaries off balance and successfully deflected their criticisms of him.
Debaters often use counterpunching as a technique. But using counterpunching as a strategy in a communications crisis can be trickier because, unlike a debate, there are no formal rules. In the wide-open horizons of social media, a misplaced counterpunch can have the same effect as shooting yourself in the foot.
Like any other kind of strategic communication, a counterpunch needs to be weighed for its positive and potential negative outcomes. One of the most important considerations is context. Typically, gun control advocates don’t defend their views by brandishing automatic weapons. In Kander’s case, it made sense. As one political observer noted, “Militarism sells in Missouri.” The candidate’s ad was a not-so-subtle way to underscore that Kander served in the military and his opponent didn’t, despite his NRA endorsement.
Many of Trump’s campaign counterpunches and his defensive presidential tweets have stirred added controversy and, in more than few cases, fueled entire new controversies. If your strategy is to win the news cycle every day, this works. If you are trying to escape the news cycle, then counterpunching can be counter-effective.
The best use of counterpunching is to respond to a serious false claim about you or your organization. Even then the road can be treacherous.
Consider Tesla’s counterpunch to a 2013 New York Times story about a test drive that ended with a depleted battery and an embarrassing tow. Elon Musk called the story a fake and accused the writer of intentionally staging the bad ending. Musk trotted out graphs and charts based on driving logs that contested key points in the Times article.
The Musk counterpunch had antecedents. Many years before Audi challenged a report about sudden acceleration in its cars and won a retraction. However, Musk never quite earned a retraction, just a long article in the Times’ Public Editor’s Journal. The most telling part of the article was a comment by a reader and Tesla Model S owner who said the reporter should have read the manual about the range of the electric vehicle:
“Unlike Mr. Musk, I don’t claim that the write ‘faked’ the story, but he certainly didn’t seem to employ the least bit of care or responsibility in fuel management (required of any vehicle, regardless of fuel type).”
But the reader also laid blame on Tesla:
“Tesla is not faultless in this, especially since it suggested the test drive. Tesla should have made it very clear that the 200-mile stretch between the two supercharger stations approaches the maximum distance and that all range maximization strategies should be employed.”
Not exactly a direct hit for a counterpunch. Instead of attacking the reporter and his integrity, Musk might have chosen another strategy, such as pointing out the need for more charging stations to eliminate problems like this. That would have acknowledged the problem and identified a solution, maybe earning editorial support for the solution by the influential newspaper.
A year later, Tesla appeared to learn this lesson and stayed quiet when the CBS’ news magazine 60 Minutes aired a glowing piece about the Tesla, which included an engine growling noise when the car accelerated. Auto junkies jumped on the report, noting that electric cars don’t growl. CBS issued an apology, blaming the engine noise dubbing on an “audio error.” There was no win for Tesla in this drag race, so it wisely stayed in the grandstands.
When you are hit with a false claim, it is tempting to strike back. It can work, but it often doesn’t. Jason Kander produced one of the best ever counterpunching ads – and he still lost. Before counterpunching, think it through before acting on emotion.
Gary Conkling is president and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at firstname.lastname@example.org and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.