There Is No Such Thing as Rapid Response

(I should know. I just managed digital rapid response for a super PAC during the 2016 election.)

First rule of Flak Club: There is either a prepared response, executed correctly or poorly, or an unprepared response.

What does each of these look like? And how do you prepare a response?

1. Prepared response

Debates are rapid response scenarios: the questions — and your opponent’s answers — are predictable, but unknown. Winning a debate requires a prepared response, executed correctly.

Executed correctly

While Donald Trump repeatedly mocked Hillary Clinton for taking time to prepare for the presidential debates, polls showed she won all three of them. This is not partisan hyperbole; Clinton gave detailed answers to policy questions and Trump meandered through, often following tangents to unrelated issues. Clinton remained poised but Trump could not keep his vindictive side from poking through. (How can we forget that “Such a nasty woman” comment?)

Indeed, Clinton deserves credit for goading Trump into making his worst debate mistakes.

Executed poorly

In 2012, part of Mitt Romney’s strategy was to make Barack Obama appear naive when it came to global politics and ill-equipped to handle national security—usually difficult blows to land on a sitting commander in chief.

In the second presidential debate with Obama, Romney’s strategy went overboard when he accused the president of refusing to call the 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi a terror attack. The moderator, Candy Crowley, fact-checked him in real-time and he was left looking slack-jawed and dumbfounded.

The poor execution of Romney’s strategy had the opposite effect of its goal: it made him the one looking ill-equipped to handle national security.

2. Unprepared response

Hacking reports took center stage in the 2016 election, but it was not long ago when hacking impacted a major film company.

In 2014, shortly before Sony Pictures was set to release “The Interview,” a satirical film depicting the assassination of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, the company was hacked. Personal emails between executives were released and screenplays of forthcoming films were stolen. This led to a chaotic several weeks during which Sony initially canceled the movie’s release and the U.S. government stepped in, blaming North Korea.

It is surprising that both a major corporation and the U.S. government were unprepared to field a backlash over a very public insult to a foreign leader from the regime predicated on worshipping that leader. Not only the backlash, but the hack was predictable: Wired reported as early as 2003 on North Korea’s program to build an army of hackers that is now “among the best in the world.”

This doesn’t mean that an unprepared response cannot be successful.

After the U.S. was caught unawares by the outbreak of the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger engaged in rigorous shuttle diplomacy aimed at maintaining a ceasefire and, ultimately, helped establish a peace settlement.

Then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger meets with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat.

In a 1975 analysis in International Studies Quarterly, Amos Perlmutter wrote that international “crisis management” was a new development in the nuclear age, and that Kissinger had “substituted personal diplomatic management for institutionalized [bureaucratic] crisis management.” In effect, Kissinger made himself the “crisis manager” and invented a template—shuttle diplomacy—for future diplomats to use in resolving conflicts.

Shuttle diplomacy takes advantage of the pressure of a crisis to bring the conflicted parties to a necessary resolution. The successful crisis manager makes herself the trusted mediator who can negotiate such a resolution by delivering each party what she has convinced them they can get.

In extreme cases—like the 1973 October War or Chernobyl or 9/11—there IS something that could be called “rapid response.”

These scenarios required quick thinking and creative leadership, operating largely (if not entirely) without a prepared plan or solid facts on the ground.

On the global stage, events are more likely to be out of our control even if we’ve planned for contingencies. But these “firsts” have given us precedents that we can use as templates for planning future responses to similar crises.

There are two major lessons from this:

1. You should never be going in blind.

There’s a reason we call certain places “trouble spots” and our weaknesses “blind spots.” You should plan for a crisis or, more accurately, for crises. You should explore the landscape in which you operate and game out consequences and chain-reactions. You should have a written plan of action that helps you identify key stakeholders, find your real-time sources of new information, speak to your core audience, and establish a chain of command. By the time a “crisis” happens, you and your team should already have logical steps to take.

(Covering every possible contingency would be exhausting. These plans should cover the likeliest scenarios, and be fairly applicable to similar contingencies.)

On a micro-level, this means each 2016 political campaign’s digital teams had lists of tweets and other content ready to fire off on debate nights. They anticipated the questions that would be asked and the candidates’ answers—and then they sought to amplify their candidate’s message, or attack their opponent’s, in real time on social media.

On a macro-level, this means the campaigns had larger communication strategies to define their own candidates and their opponents. The tactic—the language of a tweet—was dictated by the strategy: for Clinton, prove Trump is reckless and unprepared; for Trump, show competence while making Clinton’s years of experience a negative.

Photo by Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images

2. True rapid response planning flows logically from a strategy.

Having a strategy enables you to answer the smaller questions without getting hung up on them.

Does X help or hinder my ultimate goal, Y? is the logical starting point to any crisis response plan.

There is concern, even in conservative corners, that Trump lacks a foreign policy “grand strategy,” which makes the prospect of international crises during the Trump Administration that much more terrifying. Reacting to individual crises the wrong way can do more than sap time and resources; it can threaten the success of a strategy or even commit the country to a new course that is not planned or predictable, and thus potentially harmful.

Indeed, reacting to a “crisis” at all can be unnecessary if such a crisis does not threaten the trajectory of your strategy in the first place.

In the end, you should only respond to crises worth responding to. Knowing the difference between what is and isn’t worth responding to requires a strategy.

Ryan R. Migeed was digital manager of social media and rapid response at Correct The Record, a super PAC that supported Hillary Clinton.

Note: This post contains Ryan R. Migeed’s own thoughts and opinions, which do not necessarily reflect those of his current or former employer, or any organization(s) of which he is a member.

This post was also published on LinkedIn.