There was a story in The New York Times last October that didn’t get the attention it deserved. It was about a speech given last June in Colorado Springs to a bunch of energy executives by “Dr. Evil,” i.e., Richard Berman, the guy who does PR for pretty much every nasty industry you can name. …
And that’s why it’s worth listening to him, and worth reading the transcript of that speech he gave energy execs. It’s a fascinating discourse on how to shape public opinion by someone who is a) very good at it and b) utterly unburdened by scruples. This is how to win when you don’t care about decency or honesty or the opinion of your peers. This is how to win when you only care about winning. …
1. Always be on the offensive.
The key is to shape public judgment. “If you want public judgment on your side, you have to start the conversation,” Berman says. “You’re on defense if you’re responding to somebody else.”
You always attack, frame the issue, establish the battlefield. If you are responding to someone else’s accusations, even if your defense is accurate, you are losing.
2. The best offense is ad hominem.
Berman is explicit and unapologetic that going on the offensive means “shooting the messenger,” i.e., discrediting opponents, depriving them of moral authority. “The logic of the offense campaign,” Berman says, “is diminishing the other side’s ability to capture people’s imagination and to become credible.”
3. Being first, establishing common knowledge, is half the game.
“You know the guy that gets to make the first opinion, the first impression, has a huge advantage,” Berman notes, “because people don’t want to admit they were wrong the first time.” Getting out first and broadly helps create what he calls “common knowledge,” i.e., the kinds of things that “everybody knows,” even though most people can’t tell you where they heard it. …
Once something becomes common knowledge, it is extremely difficult to dislodge it. This is part of the brilliance of the right-wing media machine. It surrounds conservatives with dozens of voices, all saying the same thing, which leads to the strong impression that, hey, where there’s smoke, there’s fire. …
4. A tie is a win for the status quo.
When you are defending the status quo, you don’t necessarily need to convince the public that your side is right. You just need to confuse the issue. If you make people doubt the other side’s messengers and fill the air with a bunch of contradictory statistics and facts, most people won’t have the wherewithal to dig through it all. They will simply tune out:
You get in people’s mind a tie. They don’t know who is right. … People are not prepared to get aggressive in moving one way or another. I’ll take a tie any day if I’m trying to preserve the status quo.
This is one reason why preventing change is easier than generating it.
5. Humor works. (And so does scorn.)
We like to use humor because humor doesn’t offend people and at the same time they get the message. … Wherever possible I like to use humor to minimize or marginalize the people on the other side.
6. Emotion works better than facts; negative emotions linger longer.
Berman doesn’t get into this in the energy speech, but he has touched on it elsewhere. Here’s a bit from the Globe story:
Berman gave one of his most revealing talks about his strategy in a locale far from his Washington office. Meeting with a group of Nebraska farmers in 2010, he told them it was more effective to “hit people in their heart rather than their head,” according to a report on the talk by Nebraska Farm Bureau News. “Emotional understanding is very different — it stays with you. Intellectual understanding is a fact and facts trump other facts. When I understand something in my gut, you’ve got me in a very different way.”
Berman then explained why he believes such attacks work. “People remember negative stuff,” Berman said. “They don’t like hearing it, but they remember it … We can use fear and anger — it stays with people longer than love and sympathy.” …