I am Not a Crook: How to Message Tough Situations

Nixon: I am not a crook.

“I am not a crook,” Richard Nixon said in relation to the Watergate scandal in 1973. It was a short, declarative sentence – perfect for a sound byte. The only problem was that it was perceived as so disingenuous that the sentence began to represent exactly what Nixon was purporting not to be: a crook.

As communicators, it’s important to remember how to steer our clients away from these easy pitfalls through positive messaging that doesn’t reinforce our pre-conceived notions. In this case and many others like it (i.e. Bill Clinton in 1998: “I did not have sexual relations with that woman”), Nixon only told people what he wasn’t – not what he was. He could have avoided this historical faux pas by taking the opportunity to say what he was doing, defining his values, and reflecting the values of his target audience – the American people.

In this particular case, Nixon’s negative frame is easy to spot. In other cases, negative messaging traps can be more subtle and, therefore, harder to find. Below, I’ve outlined a couple of examples of how to turn a negative message into a positive one as a class in Positive Frames 101.

Example 1

  • Bad Messaging: While you may think that climate change is a hoax, it is actually rooted in scientific fact.
  • What’s Wrong: If you are trying to convince people that climate change is not a hoax, this sentence just reinforces the idea that climate change is up for debate and makes your argument sound less convincing before you’ve even begun.
  • How to Correct: Did you know that, according to a NASA scientific study, atmospheric carbon dioxide is the highest it’s been in 400,000 years, by a third?

Example 2

  • Bad Messaging: Yes, Hillary Clinton shouldn’t have deleted those emails, but it’s hardly the most important issue for the 2016 election.
  • What’s Wrong: “Yes, but” usually opens a window for those that disagree with you to insert their argument. Avoid this entirely by explaining what is at stake and what you are doing about it. 
  • How to Correct: Hillary Clinton’s emails were an unfortunate scapegoat for the 2016 election, which distracted from a more serious discussion of the candidates’ platforms.

And thus completes your first lesson in Positive Frames 101. Now that you’ve learned a few pivoting tricks, you’ll start to see these pitfalls in everyday conversation. Notice them, and think about how you would reframe. Stay tuned for Positive Frames 102.