It's True: "Repeating the Negative" Is Bad PR

Last Updated Oct 24, 2008 7:57 AM EDT

It's PR gospel that you shouldn't "repeat a negative," that you should instead focus on the positive and turn negative questions into positive answers. I've been hammering on this a bit on this blog of late because both presidential candidates have been repeating negatives quite a bit, though it would appear that Obama, at least, has started to learn his lesson.

One of the comments I got asked the following excellent question: how do we know that repeating a negative is bad? What's does the research say? At the time, I have to say I was stumped -- I had always taken it as a given.

But I did some looking around and it turns out that there is definitive support for the theory that you shouldn't repeat a negative.

From a Washington Post story on the Persistence of Myths:

The conventional response to myths and urban legends is to counter bad information with accurate information. But new psychological studies show that denials and clarifications, for all their intuitive appeal, can paradoxically contribute to the resiliency of popular myths.

This phenomenon may help explain why large numbers of Americans incorrectly think that Saddam Hussein was directly involved in planning the Sept 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and that most of the Sept. 11 hijackers were Iraqi. While these beliefs likely arose because Bush administration officials have repeatedly tried to connect Iraq with Sept. 11, the experiments suggest that intelligence reports and other efforts to debunk this account may in fact help keep it alive.

The story quotes research by the University of Michigan, the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and Hebrew University, all saying basically the same thing: that people don't remember the disclaimers and the credibility of the speakers, they only retain the essence of the point. So saying "Saddam Hussein wasn't involved in 9/11" gets stuck in our heads as "Saddam Hussein 9/11."

Here are some more links on the subject from On the Media, the NPR show.

The Truth of False

  • Jon Greer

    Jon Greer has been analyzing media and PR for more than 25 years. He's been a journalist and a PR executive, and has been a featured speaker for many years at the Bulldog Reporter Media Relations Summit, and served as Bulldog's Editorial Director for their PR University series of weekly how-to audio conferences.

    Jon provides PR services including media relations and freelance writing to clients including start-ups, law firms, corporations, investment banks and venture capital firms. In addition, Jon provides spokesperson training. Learn more about Jon's training programs at The Media Bridge.