Issues Management: Mastering the Attack Defense

Sports Analogy Alert/Warning: In all the years I’ve written articles and blog posts, I’ve taken care to avoid the use of sports analogies because I know the majority of people in the PR profession can be turned off by them. That said, this is that rarest of exceptions where a sports analogy is the absolute best way to illustrate the strategy that is our focus here. Bear with me. In future pieces, I will go back to sports analogy avoidance.

Chances are, if you’ve only watched football, you may believe that the offense is simply the team trying to advance the ball, and the defense is the team just trying to stop the progress of the offense. This is true, but that’s not what’s actually happening on the field.

The defense is not just waiting to see what the offense is going to do so that it can effectively react and respond through a flat-footed “defensive posture.”

Before getting into the communications aspects of this, let’s take an immersive approach.

I was a defensive end, so I’ll try illustrate the strategies and tactics through that lens. If you’re with me, we’ll suit you up and take the field.

We’re lined up facing the offensive line and the rest of the other team’s offense. Before the ball is snapped, we already know which gap between the linemen that we plan to shoot through. That decision has been made. And we have already committed in our mind to charging through that gap, not waiting to see what the offense will do.

If we wait, we know we’ll be at least one step behind the offense, regardless. Because they already know their plan. They just discussed it in a huddle. If we wait, we’ll be giving away valuable time and distance, surrendering hard-fought ground, and losing the battle.

So, once we see that ball leave the ground, as the center snaps it (and a fraction of a second before the lineman in front of us hears the QB call for the snap), we dart into and through that gap in the line. At this point, the lineman who’s trying to block us can only get his hands on our back, if at all. And sometimes, his “block” may actually push us faster into the direction we want to go.

Now, that we’re on the other side of the line and effectively into ‘enemy territory,’ we have one goal, to hit the quarterback because the play starts with the ball in his hands. To be sure, if by this point the QB has handed off to another player, our objective shifts to tackling that guy. And if there’s someone between us and the man with the ball, we now have two options. The first is to sidestep the blocker to get to the ball, or the other is to drive right into and through the blocker to disrupt the ball carrier, clog up the area, slow the runner down, and give our teammates a chance to make the tackle.

If the QB is dropping back to pass, the drill is the same. Attack, attack, attack.

Ultimately, we’ll either sack the QB, force him to throw sooner than he wanted, knock the ball loose, or at the very least, force his blocker back into him, disrupting their plans.

Since we’re just one player, you can bet our ten teammates are thinking the same way, though each has a slightly different assignment. In that spirit, while some players may serve as “safety” gaps, a good defense usually has a minimum of five to 7 (out of 11) players attacking the offense on every play. And the general strategy is to attack, and not to sit back and wait to respond to whatever happens.

Why Attack?

Strategically, the objective of an attack-style defense is to disrupt the offense. Take it off its game. To prevent it from gaining forward momentum. Ruin its plans. An attack-style defense stops the offense through disruption, not just through simple or brute force.

Applying the Attack Defense to Issues Management

At this point the strategy of using an attack-style defense in issues management scenarios should be somewhat self-evident.

When you allow the opposition to ‘call the play,’ or in other words, set the narrative, you’re already in a wait-and-respond mode. You’re behind, trying to play catch-up. They have momentum before you even get started.

The key to a good defensive attack strategy is to anticipate, know your objective and be prepared to go after it, adjusting in real time within the framework you’ve set for yourself to remain focused, all the while plowing forward to that objective.

You want to disrupt the opposition. Take them off message, take down false narratives and misinformation head on. Don’t let a moment waste as you drive forward, relentlessly.

Don’t give a baseless allegation or assumption a chance to gain traction. Get deep into the opposition’s turf so that it becomes  your ground, and you’ll be closer to the outcome you want and need to ensure clarity and, dare I say it, a victory for truth.

How to Do It

So, here’s how you do it.

  • Research – Know what the opposition is likely to say and do in advance, and why they may do it that way.
  • Anticipate – Anticipate when and where they will act, and which approaches they may take first. Be prepared to respond in real time or perhaps even preemptively take ownership of an issue before they do. If you expect an activist group to build its case against you on false allegations that you don’t care about fairness. Don’t just try to build a defensive posture on how you do care about fairness, but start to demonstrate that your opponent is the one who doesn’t care about fairness. Drive it home repeatedly and consistently.
  • Message – Make sure all of your messaging is designed to get you to your objective, steadfastly and deliberately. Don’t deviate. Don’t apologize. And make sure a certain amount of your messaging puts your opponent on the defensive where they have to explain their motives, their actions, their behaviors.
  • Don’t Stop – Once the campaign has begun, you cannot let up, even if it seems the opposition has created a lull in the activity. Chances are that’s an issues management trap. Keep pushing until you have won the day.

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Tim O’Brien, APR, is founder and principal at O’Brien Communications, a corporate communications, crisis and issues management firm in Pittsburgh. He can be reached at: timobrien@timobrienpr.com or by calling 412/854-8845. O’Brien Communications provides C-suite corporate communications services.

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