The media is not your friend, and that’s the way it should be. That’s the way it is supposed to work.
Irish statesman Edmund Burke described the 18th Century media as the “fourth estate” of Britain’s Parliament, acknowledging the significant power and influence of independent journalists upon public policy.
Some 250 years later, the press continues to have enormous (and growing) influence within the political sphere. The most well-known 20th Century example of this is the work done by Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein and many others in unraveling the Watergate scandal that ultimately forced the resignation of President Richard Nixon, not to mention dozens of criminal indictments that were handed down during the whole sordid affair.
American politics was forever changed, and journalists became increasingly aware about their important role in covering politics.
You may also remember Senator Gary Hart, a one-time front-runner for the Democratic nomination. (Disclosure: I was an unpaid volunteer on Hart’s campaign).
Hart miserably underestimated the power of the media and failed to understand their role in the public vetting process of political candidates.
In the spring of 1987, Hart’s bright campaign began to unravel under the weight of persistent rumors regarding an alleged extramarital affair. The candidate angrily denied the rumors and publicly challenged the press corps to “catch me if you can.” In essence, he was prepared to prove his integrity by challenging the power of the fourth estate.
Within days of issuing his challenge, reporters from the Miami Herald and other media outlets had amassed some damning evidence to support the rumors and speculation. In addition, a photo of Hart with a 29-year-old supermodel, posing on a boat ironically named Monkey Business, went viral. The damage was fatal.
Polls showed that Hart’s support had dropped in half, from 32 to 17 percent, placing him suddenly ten points behind Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis.
Both Nixon and Hart failed to understand the media’s role in the world of politics, but they are certainly not alone. Virtually every campaign faces its own media challenges.
So how do you avoid such disasters?
Over the past few weeks, I have conducted an informal survey with several of my former professional colleagues who still work in the so-called “mainstream media.”
I asked them what advice they would give to clients if they were suddenly working as campaign consultants. Their responses were strangely uniform and helped shape the following Rules for Dealing with the Media:
Rule One: Do not lie.
Rule Two: Do not lie; and
Rule Three: Do not lie.
Of course, there are several more good rules I will cover in an upcoming post, but being honest should be the top rule for any public campaign.
A well-executed communications strategy is the backbone of any public campaign. Candidates and their teams should also remember that the media does not exist to be your friend or your enemy.
You should never be afraid of the media, but you do need to know how they work and understand their role in the political process. That’s why you need a pro on your side, and selecting someone with a solid and proven background in media relations will greatly improve the odds of your success.
We’ll explore this subject in more depth later, but I will close here with a favorite analogy that I use to help my clients understand the media and its modus operandi:
Remember the movie Jurassic Park? There was a scene where a goat was tied to a tree in order to attract a T-Rex dinosaur for viewing pleasure. The paleontologist on the tour understands why the T-Rex does not show up on cue. “T-rex doesn’t want to be fed, he wants to hunt. You can’t just suppress 65 million years of gut instinct.”
It’s the same with the media. They don’t want to be fed, they want to hunt like Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein did. You are well-advised to never underestimate that instinct.
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Randy Seaver is a former newspaper editor, and today works as a professional strategic communications consultant. He specializes in organizing and coordinating political campaigns on the local state and federal level.
He has successfully served as communications director on a wide variety of statewide referendum questions, grassroots organizing for federal policy campaigns and running the campaigns for local candidates and referendums in his hometown.
He and his wife, Laura, live in Biddeford, Maine and have two sons