Media 101 for political novices: Leave the Witchcraft Out of It

One would think in the 21st century, there might not be the need for a candidate for the US Senate to take to the airwaves to declare “I am not a witch.” One would be wrong.

Delaware candidate Christine O’Donnell already known for her widely-circulated past statements on masturbation (against it) and evolution (“just a theory”), felt it necessary to assure Delaware voters in her first general election campaign ad that, “I’m nothing you’ve heard.”

O’Donnell is attempting to counter a widely circulated ten-year old clip from her appearance on the late-night “Politically Incorrect” show, in which she talks about “dabbling in witchcraft.” Speaking directly into the camera, in conservative dress and pearls, to reach voters who might be concerned with those clips, O’Donnell promises to go to Washington if elected and “do what you’d do. I am you,” she assures.

Predictably the “witch ad” has “gone viral”, with spoofs of the unusual denial (including a MTV style version set to music), reaching far outside the confines of voters in the First State.

The denial of witchcraft has to be a first for a modern-day political candidate, but the lessons learned from O’Donnell’s big gamble are well-worn. They are:

  1. Don’t try to prove a negative.

    Richard Nixon’s “I am not a crook” declaration stayed in our collective memory long after our consciousness about the details of the Watergate crimes he was talking about. By declaring, “I am not a witch,” O’Donnell begs us to consider whether she is one, giving the accusation further credibility. The personal need to answer her critics is understandable but reaction is likely to be the exact opposite of what she intended.

  2. Grow some thicker skin.

    Politicians and would-be politicians will be scrutinized closely and made to endure no end of outrageous insult. To those who claim this is a new phenomenon, recall the 1952 Senate campaign when Claude Pepper’s opponent warned voters “His daughter is a self-admitted, practicing thespian!” While there are indeed times accusations must be answered, the ad puts O’Donnel even further into the bizarre camp. It’s important not to overreact, especially considering her own words were what started the controversy.

  3. They’re listening. Now what?

    Surely, there are some national issues O’Donnell would rather be talking about than masturbation and witchcraft. What she’s done is ensure just weeks before the election that she won’t be talking about them. She has failed, despite her notoriety, to deal with the perception that she’s not ready for prime time. Working to deliver a coherent message about her vision for her constituents would have worked far better to turn the negative attention into something positive. Unfortunately, being unable to articulate that vision makes it even more likely the attention will stay on the bizarre or unusual statements she’s uttered.

  4. Play to your strengths and minimize your weaknesses.

    Ms. O’Donnell, I suspect, might admit live interviews and appearances are not her strong suit. This is what practice and preparation are for. In appearance after appearance, by even the friendliest of interviewers, and even on the most basic of issues, Ms. O’Donnell appears painfully flustered and unprepared. She may have benefited from more local media interactions before she was forced to face the much harsher national spotlight. Surely she would have benefited from some media training to work on how to communicate what she actually stands for.

  5. Try some humor.

    People vote for people they like. People like those who are comfortable in their own skin. Defensiveness and counter accusations wear thin. Some self-deprecating humor, coupled with some genuine and positive messages about her vision of change surely would have worked better for Ms. O’Donnell. Until and unless she can overcome her communication failures, Christine O’Donnell will continue to be defined by them.

Aileen Pincus is President of The Pincus Group Inc., an executive coaching firm offering training in presentation, speech, media and crisis communications. She can be reached at

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