Call Outs Never Prosper: WSJ and Coulter Whiff

July 19, 2017

In this week of political posturing, two skirmishes stood out in the games of influence and strategy, each offering lessons in ad hominem attacks and the risks thereof.

THE WALL STREET JOURNAL Alarmed by the arc of Donald Trump’s presidency and his predilection for denial, journalism’s conservative icon thought it time to give PR advice to the PR president.* Its big idea: “Radical transparency.”Screenshot 2017-07-19 08.31.31

The op-ed started with a politically appealing play, a reference to the great secret-keeper, Hillary Clinton. Don’t be like her. Then came the pitch:

“Release everything to the public ahead of the inevitable leaks…everything with any Russian or any American with Russian business ties…every relevant part of Mr. Trump’s tax returns [that special counsel Robert] Mueller is sure to seek anyway.”

Two plays supported the Journal’s prose: The Equate, a framing strategy, to link the scandal-prone Clinton to Trump, and the Challenge, the pressing play that nudges another to make a move. But where the authors erred was in a quick and column-killing Call Out of the president’s son, Donald Trump, Jr. They called him a witless dunce, a sure-fire way to keep The Donald in Denialand and some good advice on the shelf.

DELTA AIRLINES The plays that the 45th president likes to run are what Playmakers call high-engagement strategies, those elements of the Taxonomy of Influence Plays that are designed to preempt and provoke. This includes the Preempt, Peacock, Bait and, as described above, the often ill-advised Call Out.Screenshot 2017-07-19 08.22.56

They are also the plays that fuel the brand and blather of Ann Coulter, the right wing provocateur who this week aimed her tweeting tirade at what she thought was an easy mark, the reputationally-beleaguered Delta Airlines (see above, right).

What Coulter didn’t count on was that Delta had grown a backbone. To the surprise of many, especially rank-and-file crisis consultants, Delta issued a prompt and pointed smack down (see below, right).Screenshot 2017-07-19 08.24.51

Many lessons can be drawn from the Journal’s impatience and Coulter’s impertinence. But foremost is the probability that ad hominem — the act of personal purloining — is quite risky. There’s no proof that the Journal’s drubbing of Donald Jr. hurt the paper or killed a good idea. But to call the president’s son stupid is to spite a proud president and surely push him further into a corner. It’s more certain that Ann Coulter’s insults hurt her own brand more than the airline’s. Delta, tired of the cheap shots and perhaps insulated by the social media mass-assault on United Airlines, saw fit to take her on.

The Wall Street Journal’s plays were pitch perfect, at least until it got personal. Ann Coulter made it personal by design and out of habit. But she went too far by piercing the veneer of an impersonal corporation and poking the people who do the real work. And the deciding play was the Call Out, the strategy that seldom prospers.

Post by Alan Kelly

* Reader’s Note: Students of the Playmaker taxonomy will note that The Journal’s recommendation of radical transparency amounts to a Reflect, the strategy of preemptive disclosure.