If you are an organisation or group with an agenda that could easily be misconstrued by public opinion then you need to work hard to make sure your PR is spot on and doesn’t backfire against you.
Earlier today, Pegida, a German group which is campaigning against the ‘Islamification of the West’ held their first march in the UK (others have taken place in Germany). They stress they are not anti-Islam, only anti-extreme Islam. And, according to media reports (and Pegida itself) they had deliberately picked the city of Newcastle (which has a small Muslim population) to avoid attracting the kinds of far-right groups that previously would have been attracted to similar marches in Bradford or Leeds (which have far larger Muslim populations).
One of Pegida’s proof points that they aren’t racist is that they had Muslims taking part in their march.
A spokesperson for the group, Marion Rogers told the BBC:
“We are not racist, we are not fascist, we are not far-right and we’re certainly not anti-Islam – we’ve got Muslims here with us today.’
All of these negative statements i.e. ‘anti-Islamification’, ‘we are not’ etc are classic examples of negative framing. Once the interview is over the listener will be left with the denials and the powerful associations conjured up by ‘we are not anti-Muslim’. i.e. they will be left with the impression that Pegida IS anti-Muslim. A parallel from the corporate world would be a media interview with a CEO in which he or she is quoted as saying ‘we are not in a crisis’ and the reader automatically assumes they are because the word ‘crisis’ sets alarm bells ringing.
Either way, strategists at Pegida almost certainly haven’t read ‘Don’t Think of An Elephant’ by George Lakoff, the Berkeley professor and cognitive linguist who wrote the handbook on how not to conform with and reinforce people’s negative ideas about you.
Some people might ask what Ms Rogers should have done when pressed with this kind of question. Quite simply, if Pegida is being honest when it says they are anti-extreme Islam then from a PR standpoint they should have run a positive campaign which they didn’t have to defend. But she certainly should not have opened herself up to being quoted in media interviews saying ‘we are not x, we are not y, we are not z’. Not only does the previous experience of negative campaigning (e.g the No campaign on the Scottish referendum) tell us that they generally not as effective as they could be, but they give the media powerful and potentially damaging quotes which are hard to distance oneself from in the weeks and months after an interview.