RESPONDING IS LOSING: How Trump, Zuckerberg and China Out-Play Us

July 17, 2020

Something needs to be said about the strategy of response: It’s a loser’s game. Responding to an attack, rant, brag, insult or lie – whether planned or improvised – seldom slows or stops aggressors. More often it revives them. Consider four examples:

TRUMP PLAYS When President Trump decries Democrats as far-left fascists he stirs the hate of the left whose like-minded news outlets then fact-check and puncture the hyperbole (see my essay, Anatomy of a Strategy). Lured more by the reaction than news, conservative media report the outrage the president’s slights incite. You might think the Dems are winners of this round for busting the bloviations but on net it’s a point for the right because what Trump covets most is the upset of his rivals. Foment, not facts, is what fuses his base.

FACEBOOK PLAYS  When Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg invokes free speech as his highest societal obligation many cry foul, citing his neglect of fair elections, equal rights and personal privacy. While it feels good to take Zuckerberg to task this assures him a win because there is no right answer in the weighing of constitutional pillars. He prevails by stalemate.

ACTIVIST PLAYS  When activists attack business giants the reflex is indignation followed by deflections and officious tutorials. From carbon emissions to animal rights the pattern is predictable and tired. Just as Republicans are fueled by the fury of Democrats, the lovers of all things green and sentient are driven more by the condescension they perceive than the perspective their opponents provide. Again, response of this kind is a fail because the accuser is accelerated, not slowed.

CHINA PLAYS  When China suggests that the U.S. is behind the novel coronavirus, diplomatic, military and intelligence operators mobilize to re-influence hearts and minds: China’s facts are fibs and we can prove it, is their counter-message to seed. But in China where dissent is filtered and access is jammed few know better for the CCP’s deceit. And in the west where entertainment mimics journalism the red herrings that China tosses are covered too well and taken too seriously.

Bottom line: Conventional counterpoint doesn’t win for the righteous, it legitimizes the extremists and their propaganda. The better game to play in these contests of rhetoric is to know more of the plays one can run, particularly those that reverse the rhetoric.


When principles or points of view are attacked most victims will rise to the occasion or try. And why not? It’s a good look. Liberal media are hailed for disparaging a president’s spin. Lawmakers are lauded for questioning a Facebook monopoly. Laboratories are heroes for schooling emotional NGOs. And governments are cheered for unmasking a state actor’s diversions.

The problem for targets of spin is not their instinct to respond but the habits and playbooks they employ; they’re old and thin, respectively. Low-polling campaigns focus on killing a meme instead of creating one. CEOs eschew low roads for high roads, which showcases honor but betrays poor competitive acumen. And scientists promote logic when reason is doubted and illogic is celebrated.

So what are the answers to extremist actors? Consider these prescriptions:

TRUMP COUNTER PLAYS  Recasting or ignoring a label is seldom a good counter to President Trump’s sticky sound bites. A better option is to encourage or even accept his point: Sure, we’re fascists. We like masks, equal rights and healthcare-for-all. Yep, we’re fascists. Since November 2015 I’ve argued that Trump can only be beaten by speeding him up, not slowing him down. Indeed, Trump is prone to over-state but without punching bags his proclamations convey as crazy.

FACEBOOK COUNTER PLAYS  Contrasting one core value with another is a guarantee to complicate not solve a debate. If you don’t like what Facebook is doing take on something that’s genuinely precious to Facebook – data and dollars – not the cross-over of constitution amendments. Celebrate and encourage rival platforms and shame Facebook’s advertisers to find a moral social medium.

ACTIVIST COUNTER PLAYS  When an activist outs a corporate abuse, like pollution or animal cruelty, a better play for the business is to double-down on the exposé. Instead of crisis management think of it as opportunity management. Acknowledge the embarrassment then challenge the NGO to join you in the development of innovative answers, like biodegradable packaging and synthetic human tissues. Don’t fan the flames of the fires they set. Change the discussion and force them to respond.

CHINA COUNTER PLAYS  When China blames America for a killer virus a better strategy is to admit what we all know – that America plays word games too (e.g., Kung Flu, Wuhan Virus). It might seem like madness to disclose what is variously called information operations, psyops and MISO but it would move the discussion from whether or not the game is played to how and with what principles its rules are applied. In that debate, democracy wins easily.

When I suggested recently to a client that we publicly engage a competitor on a winnable debate he admitted we might score some points, but he worried we’d also earn the rival’s wrath. My suggestion of engagement was taken as aggression when in fact the plays I had in mind were nuanced. It was my mistake and my failure to educate. Quite understandably, he saw his choices as binary: Attack or retreat, low road vs. high road, etc.

Responding to a detractor, especially one that embraces misinformation, disinformation and other forms of propaganda, is not a casual choice. In fact, it’s often the wrong. Reversing spin requires a resistance to knee-jerk response, fuller understanding of counter-intuitive options, and complete understanding of the full spectrum of influence strategies. There are 23 plays that can defuse or flip an aggressor, not two or three.

Post by Alan Kelly


[1] Links will direct you to supporting articles and “plays” of the Taxonomy of Influence Strategies, a patented classification shown above that identifies, describes and orders fundamental units of advocacy and persuasion.
Other essays by Alan Kelly include Congratulations Brands. You Caught the Car. Now Run Away, Newsjacking the Pandemic: The Rise and Ruin of SpinformationThe Elements of InfluenceDecoding Crimea: Pinpointing the Influence Strategies of Modern Information WarfareEdward Bernays Foresaw Our Fakery. That’s Why PR Throws Him Under the BusFake News: PR’s Little MonsterTrust Me, I’ve Got a Barometer, and Dancing with the Giant: Challenging the Symmetric Paradigm.