When am­bushed by ac­tivists, politi­cians should be bor­ing

The Star Malaysia - - Focus -

DID you catch the video that sur­faced re­cently show­ing a woman try­ing to talk about home­less­ness with New York City Mayor Bill de Bla­sio as he worked out at a gym? It won’t ex­actly make his high­light reel when he looks for ma­te­rial to use in his next cam­paign com­mer­cial.

“I can’t do this now,” de Bla­sio says, forc­ing a peev­ish smile as the woman en­treats him to build more hous­ing for home­less peo­ple. Then a se­cu­rity of­fi­cer in­ter­venes and the mayor heads for an exit.

New York City Taxi Com­mis­sioner Meera Joshi also beat a video­taped re­treat af­ter pro­test­ers am­bushed her when she showed up at a vigil for an Uber driver who com­mit­ted sui­cide. And anti-Trump ac­tivists have con­fronted Repub­li­can of­fi­cials in a se­ries of restau­rant en­coun­ters de­signed for no dis­cernible pur­pose ex­cept to shame them.

Video­taped am­bushes leave of­fi­cials in un­winnable sit­u­a­tions: While some ac­tivists may be gen­uinely try­ing to get help from their rep­re­sen­ta­tives, oth­ers are sin­gle­mind­edly mo­ti­vated to spread em­bar­rass­ment on so­cial-me­dia plat­forms.

There are two pub­lic-re­la­tions strate­gies politi­cians can use if they find them­selves in such sit­u­a­tions.

First, when ap­proached in a pub­lic place, politi­cians should be civil and make it clear that they’re will­ing to en­gage – even if they can’t or won’t do so on the spot. It’s a good idea to have busi­ness cards on hand, of staffers who will take the calls of ag­grieved cit­i­zens – and of­fer them up when con­fronted.

Of­fi­cials should also sug­gest that the peo­ple who ap­proach them at­tend their sched­uled town-hall meet­ings. The prob­lem with the de Bla­sio video, for ex­am­ple, is that it shows him re­fus­ing to talk to the woman who ap­proaches him, but not pro­vid­ing a dif­fer­ent way for her to take up her gripes with his ad­min­is­tra­tion.

Of course, telling her to call 311 (a non-emer­gency phone num­ber that peo­ple can call in many US cities to find in­for­ma­tion about ser­vices, make com­plaints, or re­port prob­lems like graf­fiti or road dam­age) to speak with an anony­mous op­er­a­tor might also have been per­ceived as heart­less and un­help­ful. It would have been bet­ter from a pub­lic re­la­tions stand­point if he’d been able to hand out cards list­ing the names and con- tacts of staff mem­bers who could re­spond to the woman’s con­cerns. Such staffers need to have the se­nior­ity to ac­tu­ally help peo­ple and speak on be­half of the ad­min­is­tra­tion. In an era when mem­bers of the pub­lic post re­sponses from of­fi­cials on so­cial me­dia, ev­ery staff ’s an­swer is po­ten­tially pub­lic. So politi­cians need to as­sign me­dia savvy aides to en­gage with vo­cal cit­i­zens.

When con­fronted in pub­lic, politi­cians shouldn’t act ag­grieved; they should make it clear that they are will­ing to help peo­ple, even if not at the mo­ment when they’re do­ing sit-ups or or­der­ing din­ner. It is, af­ter all, what they’re elected to do. A rea­son­able per­son will un­der­stand that a politi­cian can’t work around the clock, and that al­low­ing of­fi­cials time to take care of them­selves will ul­ti­mately make them bet­ter at their jobs. If a video is se­lec­tively edited to re­move the of­fer of help, the politi­cian can later point out that an of­fer of as­sis­tance was made. Sec­ond, in such sit­u­a­tions, politi­cians should be as bor­ing as pos­si­ble. Hand­ing over a busi­ness card calmly and re­spect­fully is the best bet be­cause it’s un­dra­matic and not YouTube wor­thy. It turns the tables on an ag­gres­sive video ac­tivist, putting the ag­gres­sor at risk of ap­pear­ing to act in­ap­pro­pri­ately. And it gives a politi­cian the op­tion to score a po­lit­i­cal point by high­light­ing an an­tag­o­nist’s rude be­hav­iour.

It won’t nec­es­sar­ily de­ter po­lit­i­cal op­po­nents, of course. Par­ti­sans will take plea­sure in watch­ing footage of bad be­hav­iour by pro­test­ers who do things like forc­ing Sen­a­tor Ted Cruz and his wife, Heidi, or White House Press Sec­re­tary Sarah Huck­abee San­ders, to leave a restau­rant. But those peo­ple were never go­ing to give them a fair shot any­way. More mod­er­ate vot­ers would ap­pre­ci­ate cool-headed re­sponses from politi­cians fac­ing ag­gres­sive heck­ling.

Ac­tivists act­ing like am­a­teur Jerry Springers are try­ing to turn the pri­vate lives of politi­cians into op­por­tu­ni­ties for em­bar­rass­ing con­fronta­tions. The best way to re­spond is by re­fus­ing to play the roles op­po­nents want to as­sign them. Of­fi­cials shouldn’t al­low them­selves to be por­trayed as un­car­ing or an­gry. By be­ing pre­pared to re­act adroitly and sym­pa­thet­i­cally, they can in­stead ex­pose these traits in their in­ter­locu­tors.

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