When Ambushed by Activists, Politicians Should Be Boring

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Did you catch the video that surfaced last week showing a woman trying to talk about homelessness with New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio as he worked out at a gym? It won't exactly make his highlight reel when he looks for material to use in his next campaign commercial.

“I can’t do this now,” de Blasio says, forcing a peevish smile as the woman entreats him to build more housing for homeless people. Then a security officer intervenes and the mayor heads for an exit.

New York City Taxi Commissioner Meera Joshi also beat a videotaped retreat after protesters ambushed her when she showed up at a Sunday vigil for an Uber driver who committed suicide. And anti-Trump activists have confronted Republican officials in a series of restaurant encounters designed for no discernible purpose except to shame them.

Videotaped ambushes leave officials in unwinnable situations: While some activists may be genuinely trying to get help from their representatives, others are single-mindedly motivated to spread embarrassment on social-media platforms.

There are two public-relations strategies politicians can use if they find themselves in such situations.

First, when approached in a public place, politicians should be civil and make it clear that they’re willing to engage — even if they can’t or won’t do so on the spot. It’s a good idea to have business cards on hand, of staffers who will take the calls of aggrieved citizens — and offer them up when confronted.

Officials should also suggest that the people who approach them attend their scheduled town-hall meetings. The problem with the de Blasio video, for example, is that it shows him refusing to talk to the woman who approaches him, but not providing a different way for her to take up her gripes with his administration.

Of course, telling her to call 311 to speak with an anonymous operator might also have been perceived as heartless and unhelpful. It would have been better from a public relations standpoint if he'd been able to hand out cards listing the names and contacts of staff members who could respond to the woman's concerns. Such staffers need to have the seniority to actually help people and speak on behalf of the administration. In an era when members of the public post responses from officials on social media, every staffer's answer is potentially public. So politicians need to assign media savvy aides to engage with vocal citizens.

When confronted in public, politicians shouldn't act aggrieved; they should make it clear that they are willing to help people, even if not at the moment when they’re doing sit-ups or ordering dinner. It is, after all, what they’re elected to do. A reasonable person will understand that a politician can’t work around the clock, and that allowing officials time to take care of themselves will ultimately make them better at their jobs. If a video is selectively edited to remove the offer of help, the politician can later point out that an offer of assistance was made.

Second, in such situations, politicians should be as boring as possible. Handing over a business card calmly and respectfully is the best bet because it’s undramatic and not YouTube worthy. It turns the tables on an aggressive video activist, putting the aggressor at risk of appearing to act inappropriately. And it gives a politician the option to score a political point by highlighting an antagonist's rude behavior.

It won't necessarily deter political opponents, of course. Partisans will take pleasure in watching footage of bad behavior by protestors who do things like forcing Senator Ted Cruz and his wife, Heidi, or White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, to leave a restaurant. But those people were never going to give them a fair shot anyway. More moderate voters would appreciate cool-headed responses from politicians facing aggressive heckling.

Activists acting like amateur Jerry Springers are trying to turn the private lives of politicians into opportunities for embarrassing confrontations. The best way to respond is by refusing to play the roles opponents want to assign them. Officials shouldn’t allow themselves to be portrayed as uncaring or angry. By being prepared to react adroitly and sympathetically, they can instead expose these traits in their interlocutors.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Kara Alaimo is an assistant professor of public relations at Hofstra University and author of “Pitch, Tweet, or Engage on the Street: How to Practice Global Public Relations and Strategic Communication.” She previously served in the Obama administration.

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