Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Kurtz, media and the GOP

Howard Kurtz seems stunned by Steve Schmidt's reaction to the media feeding frenzy over Sarah Palin:
In an extraordinary and emotional interview, Steve Schmidt said his campaign feels "under siege" by wave after wave of news inquiries. . . .
The fact that unsubstantiated allegations appear on the Internet "is not a license for smearing" Palin, he said. "The campaign has been inundated by hundreds and hundreds of calls from some of the most respected reporters and news organizations. Many reporters have called the campaign and have apologized for asking the questions and said, 'Our editors are making us do this, and I am ashamed.' " . . .
"We are being bombarded by e-mails and phone calls from journalists asking when she will be dropping out of the race," Schmidt said.
Kurtz also links HuffPo and quotes a McCain campaign communication staffer, Brian Rogers:
It would be nice if the media outlets covering this garbage actually did their due diligence in reporting, and didn't just push Obama campaign/Daily Kos smears.
The accusatory approach doesn't work, nor does the "media victim" tactic. Students of media relations should study this situation closely.

What Schmidt and Rogers are demonstrating, by default, is that media relations is about relationships. People who serve communications functions in an organization must build relationships with journalists if they wish to be able to shape coverage, and this becomes especially obvious when a crisis occurs.

Jon Henke has talked about being brought into Sen. George Allen's re-election campaign in 2006, in the wake of the "macaca" debacle. Henke's job was to help Allen get his message out via New Media, but the problem he faced was that this should have been done over the course of many months, long before the "macaca" incident exposed Allen's vulnerability to online attacks. The Allen campaign had failed to cultivate relationships with the blogosphere (and with Old Media reporters, too), and thus found itself unable to control the narrative once the crisis hit.

One of the reasons GOP operatives are so bad at media relations is that Republican campaign staffs tend to be organized in a structure that is opaque, closed and hierarchical -- a command-and-control system, where roles are carefully defined, and "success" is defined as "following orders."

The 21st-century media environment, however, rewards organizations that are transparent, open and flexible -- a team system, where roles change in response to current needs, and "success" is defined as "contributing to the overall effort."

It's the difference between an organization based on rules, and an organization based on objectives. A rules-based organization is very good at handling situations that are planned, predictable and routine. But when the McCain campaign discovered Wednesday -- two days before the vice-presidential announcement -- that the Sarah Palin's 17-year-old daughter was pregnant, and then found itself attacked by bizarre rumors related to the daughter's pregnancy, this was a situation unplanned, unpredictable and anything but routine.

Faced with a novel and unanticipated development, the command-and-control style of campaign organization misfired. The press wanted access to the facts, but the closed and opaque style of the McCain campaign -- aimed at regulating the flow of information through pre-approved channels -- choked off that access, and so reporters (eager to scoop their competitors) began passing along rumors.

Reporters tend to react negatively to organizations that seem secretive: "What are they trying to hide?" The closed, opaque, hierarchical tendencies of Republican campaigns fuel this sense of suspicion. Add in the hostility toward the press that is ubiquitous among GOP operatives, and you have a formula for disaster whenever anything that seems remotely scandalous pops up.


  1. I'm not sure I completely agree. From the excerpts I've seen of the speech, it sounds like McCain's campaign is starting on a "do you want to choose, or do you want to let the NYT choose for you" sort of theory. That, along with the "I am Sarah Palin" uprising, might just work.

  2. I'm still pretty new to the political communications world. All I know is relationships are key. You're are correct. I view it a little like customer service w/ webloggers (in my case) as my customers. If I can help them it helps me and my employer.

    In the Bristol Palin story the MSM went beyond any sense of reason running DailyKos rumors. that's more than simply not getting needed info from McCain's press shop. There's a level of viciousness there McCain's campaign should not stand for. Not all media should be treated this way, but the most pathetic (NY Times, MSNBC) should be hammered.