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  • Natalie Sareff

Strategy lessons from gotcha journalism

What’s the cash rate?

What about wage growth?

How much would a McFlurry cost me if I went to Engadine Maccas right now?


With the recent election, we saw the return of the notorious ‘gotcha journalist question’ – a request for an easily ‘googleable’ fact, political or not. This tactic is not intended to gather information. It’s purely to demonstrate whether a candidate does or doesn’t remember the fact.


Gotcha journalism teaches us a lot about politics. That our 24hr news cycle is more relevant than ever. That sound bites can trump (no pun intended) policy. Even, possibly, that we demand that our political sphere entertain as much as it governs. But what do gotcha journalists teach us about communications strategy? They’re masters of using framing to identify the emotion behind the number.


If we watch gotcha journalists in practice as they delve beyond the number to its emotional core, we find some truly powerful observations. How do they reframe blanking on wage growth? Well, just a couple of preceding comments about ‘working families doing it tough’ and suddenly that moment of stunned silence from a candidate means ‘Getting work has always felt secure and consistent for me’. In a post-COVID world, where many of their constituents are still smarting from a redundancy, this implication hits hard. What about the cost of a litre of milk? Well, if you frame it right, that screams ‘I’ve never been 5 cents short of anything I wanted’.


To some, the cash rate might just be a sign that Canberra’s not experiencing record vacancy shortages. But in the hands of a gotcha journalist who has so much as googled ‘framing’, guessing a number that’s 0.04pts too high could say ‘Shelter, a basic right that was a given for your parents is unrealistic for you, but I have 3 houses!’


From envy, to fear, to belonging, the gotcha journalist is a master of turning complex information into messaging that stays top of mind, provides cut-through, and captures a quantity of earned media that most agencies could only dream of.


If gotcha journalists have taught us that reframing a number to an emotion provides cut through for politics, is the same tactic equally relevant for products? According to some of marketing’s most celebrated figures, the answer is a resounding yes. In Binet and Fields’ the long and the short of it, we see that an emotionally driven campaign exceeds both a rational campaign, and a rational/emotional campaign, in both amount of profit driven, and efficiency.


So, what’s the biggest take home that marketers can take from gotcha journalists? Whatever number constitutes your claim to fame, whether it’s a rock-bottom price, 48 hours of protection, 100 calories per serving, or something completely different, take a note from the masters of reframing from the rational to the emotional, and reap the effectiveness rewards.


Source: The Long and the Short of It: Balancing Short and Long-Term Marketing Strategies, Binet, L and Field, P (2013)

Source: A brief history of the ‘Gotcha Question’ in Politics, Itkowitz, C, Washington Post, (24/2/2015)


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