If you’ve been following Bay Area news lately, you may be aware that the city of San Jose is facing a major budget deficit. Mayor Chuck Reed and the San Jose City Council has asked all city employees to take a 10 percent cut in wages and benefits. If the unions representing these employees refuse to accept these cuts, layoffs will occur in all departments.
While the deficit and layoffs are troubling enough, perhaps some of the most troubling aspects of this issue are the messaging tactics being used by the leadership of City Hall to turn the residents of San Jose against the city employees. These leaders have painted a picture, particularly through the use of the San Jose Mercury News, of city employees as being greedy for not wanting to surrender 10 percent of their salaries and benefits. At its core, their main message conveys that because so many in the private sector have suffered due to the state of the current economy, it’s only fair that those in the public sector should have to as well.
At the center of this storm are the San Jose Fire Department and San Jose Police Department, who have been blasted recently for their retirement packages and health benefits, which many members of the City Council are now claiming to be excessive. Due to the message that has been projected to the public about these employees, many citizens are beginning to turn on them. For example, a letter to the editor was recently submitted to the Mercury News claiming that when a citizen sees a library in San Jose closed due to the dismal budget, they should “thank a firefighter.” Also troubling were the calls to a local councilman from several citizens who witnessed a fire being fought in temperatures as high as 90 last week (a blaze that sent two firefighters to the hospital for heat exhaustion). They claimed to be concerned to see a group of firefighters drinking water in the shade and laughing after they had fought the blaze. Apparently, these citizens forgot that in such weather, cooling your body and staying hydrated are important…even for firefighters.
In light of the recent smear campaign launched by the city against its own employees, we’ve compiled a list of “Dos and Don’ts” to abide by if ever you find yourself at the heart of a smear campaign:
Do plan your messaging tactics before going public: Like any other public relations campaign, a solid core message must be developed and revised before launching. Resist the temptation to strike back quickly with your response to the allegations against you. You will lose credibility with your target public(s) if you are poorly organized and you may potentially risk contradicting yourself.
Don’t mention the other party in your statements: Despite what may be your first instinct, do not respond to an individual or organization’s claims by using their name(s) in a public forum. This is what turns your defensive tactics into an offensive attack against those smearing you…and makes you just as bad as them.
Don’t strike back: When your reputation is hurt, it is difficult to fight the desire to refute claims by pointing a finger back at your accuser. Still, it is important to handle the situation maturely and rationally by not retaliating by sending a smear campaign back in the other direction. Keep calm and focus on restoring your reputation…not on ruining theirs.
Do stick to the facts: Presenting facts that are untrue in your counter messaging will only hurt you in the end, not your opponent. Present the truth, to avoid losing credibility in the eyes of your target public.
Do find allies: Your message will be more convincing if you have the support of others behind you. Find as many organizations, politicians, or other relevant individuals as you can to stand behind you. They say to stand up for what you believe in, even if you’re standing alone. This is true, but it sure is a lot easier with some friends by your side.
Do use alternative/creative methods: Depending on the situation facing you or your organization, a variety of methods may be appropriate to counter the claims of the smear campaign. Do not limit your methods to just one. For example, in addition to posting their side of the argument on their website, Every Second Counts, the San Jose Fire Department has taken to going door-to-door in San Jose neighborhoods to alert the citizens to the current situation they are facing, and the City Council’s plan to make severe cuts in their department.
Do expect more attacks: After fighting a smear campaign, you may feel at one point like you have fulfilled your mission, but you may not be out of the woods yet. Never let your guard down and always act with integrity. This will give your opponents less material to work with. Also, have statements prepared to counter any future attacks. The better prepared you are, the faster you may be able to crush any new attacks.
Don’t take it personally: As difficult as this is to accept, a personal vendetta is not at the center of the majority of public smear campaigns. These campaigns are typically launched for someone else’s political or social gain. While it may be easy to feel like insults and accusations are aimed to hurt you, they are actually aimed at helping the opposing party. Keep your cool, respond with respect, and leave it all behind when you go home at night.