Image: Wikicommons

The US podcast On the Media recently focused on claims by alt-right figure Milo Yiannopoulos that Berkeley University was denying him the right to free speech.

As one participant said, the real issue is how populists deliberately create controversy as a PR tactic. He argued that Yiannopoulos resembles a vampire: not because of his views, but because he has no right to even “enter the house” without an invitation. Yiannopoulos’ strategy depends on pretending otherwise.

With the headline-grabbing election of 94 far-right politicians to the German parliament, the “vampires” there have definitely been invited in. Outgoing foreign minister Sigmar Gabriel said that there would now be “real Nazis in parliament, for the first time since World War 2”. The Alternative for Deutschland (AfD) captured nearly 13% of the vote and is now the third largest party in parliament.

This raises a fundamental question for all those to the left of the populists: how to react to deliberate provocation now that the AfD enjoys a “bully pulpit” in parliament -- and federal funding to match?

The “Gabriel faction” will presumably look to block them at every turn, by tactics ranging from protest walk-outs to denying them traditional cross-party cooperation.

It’s easy to appreciate the underlying concern for protecting basic standards of decency. But is it the best way to win back the lost voters, or will it just alienate them further?

Bear in mind that rejection of mainstream parties was the key factor behind the rise of the AfD. Indeed, exit polls suggested that nearly two thirds of AfD voters chose them out of protest rather than because they support their actual program.

And the AfD, like Yiannopoulos, thrives on controversy. German media say a leaked strategy paper showed that various “miscommunications”, starting with co-founder Frauke Petry’s reported comment that border guards should be prepared to shoot refugees, were part of a well-planned PR strategy.

So where should mainstream politicians draw the line between defending the values they believe in and simply rising to the bait every time? There will be no easy answers, and decisions will need to be made case-by-case, as in the broader debate about how to respond to “fake news”.

But maybe that’s just the point, and the key takeaway for any of us facing similar challenges in our work as communicators. There are always alternatives -- particularly when our opponents say there are not.

The AfD, despite its name, is not the only alternative for Germany. And, while they have entered the house, they are not yet permanent residents. The question is how to frame the debate so that they will be invited to leave.

Chris Lewis is senior manager external communications at Sandoz: this blog post reflects his personal opinion. Chris joined the EACD in 2010.