How not to respond to accusations of witchcraft

One of the more popular stories from our newsletter this month is about Christine O'Donnell, the Republican candidate in Delaware's general election Senate race. Leading up to the election, O'Donnell's campaign was dogged by speculation about her involvement in witchcraft (speculation fueled by comments O'Donnell herself made during a 1999 TV interview). In an attempt at damage control, O'Donnell issued a 30-second TV spot aimed at convincing the public she's an ordinary person, "just like you". In a shockingly poor attempt at addressing the issue head-on, however, a smiling O'Donnell begins her ad with the following four words: "I'm not a witch." You can view the ad here.

The public reaction to the ad wasn't quite what O'Donnell and her organizers were hoping for. Opponents and the media had a field day. The 30-second spot was even parodied on Saturday Night Live. In her attempt to change the conversation, O'Donnell actually made the situation worse.

The Lesson: There are two lessons here. The first one relates to the 1999 interview in which she referred to "dabbling into witchcraft". Even if you don't aspire to hold public office one day, this probably isn't the kind of life experience to bring up in a network TV interview. The other lesson is about not repeating negative language. The TV ad would have been more effective (or at least less damaging) without the phrase "I'm not a witch." Even though she's refuting the claim, her statement has the opposite effect, serving as fodder for her opponents, critics and the media. In the end, O'Donnell lost her election bid.