Strategic Communications: Know Your Opponent’s Achilles’ Heel and Your Own

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By Owen Eagan, The Saint Consulting Group

Opposition research is an integral part of any political campaign, whether it’s for a candidate, issue or land use development project.  In the world of land use politics, it is commonplace for competitors to engage in opposition research, especially in situations where clients are trying to protect their market share.

However, opposition research sometimes has a negative connotation because people who utilize it are often accused of “going negative.”  So, rather than think of opposition research being used for negative purposes, think of it as being used for comparative purposes.  That is, it is perfectly fair and reasonable for you to compare your record with your competitors.  The challenges lie in what you use and how you use it.

Apart from the Greek myth about Achilles, Wikipedia defines Achilles’ Heel as a deadly weakness in spite of overall strength, that can actually or potentially lead to downfall. Careful research in land use politics brings not only insight, but strategy and tactics for the battle ahead.

First, when undertaking this task, you need to know what to look for.  Sometimes, the amount of information that you need to research can be overwhelming.  For instance, in the 1988 presidential campaign, Republican strategist Lee Atwater, who worked for George H. W. Bush, instructed James Pinkerton to reduce Michael Dukakis’ entire record as governor to a three-by-five index card.  After all, just as you need to boil your primary messages down to sound bites, you also need to boil your comparative messages down to sound bites.  Many people likely remember the Willie Horton issue as one of the comparative issues in that campaign.

Next is the challenge of how to use this information.  Here another parallel with your primary messages can be drawn.  For more credibility, opposition research is best used by third party validators.  For instance, if you find that a competitor has a history of treating its workers unfairly, there is no better way to criticize them than getting ex-workers to provide testimonials against their former employer.  And, like the Swift Boat Veterans during the 2004 presidential campaign, third party validators can deliver messages that would be impolitic for others to do so.

That said, every developer should conduct a vulnerability analysis to prepare for any criticisms the company is likely to face from competitors or from the community in which it proposes to operate.  To that end, the company may want to organize a “truth squad” to debunk myths and correct distortions about its operations.  It may also want to identify its own third party validators.

For example, as Mitt Romney runs for president, he is sure to be criticized once again for slashing jobs during his tenure as CEO at Bain Capital as the firm bought, sold and merged companies.  In fact, when Romney challenged U.S. Senator Edward Kennedy in 1994, Kennedy’s campaign paraded out workers who lost their jobs from a plant closing after Bain Capital took over the company.  Even so, Romney will likely be able to justify his jobs credentials.  That is, even corporate turnaround specialist Al Dunlap, who earned the nickname Chainsaw Al for his penchant for slashing jobs, was able to put a positive spin on his record.

He said that by streamlining companies he was making them more competitive and, instead of cutting jobs, he was saving jobs that would otherwise be lost.  Though a good argument, testimonials from those employees that remained would have been particularly effective.

So, when conducting your opposition research, make sure that you know what your own vulnerabilities are as well.  If you don’t, you risk being ill-prepared should your competitors identify them first.

Owen Eagan is a Senior Consultant for Saint Consulting, email and phone 781-831-2494.