Press abuse: 15 simple rules for politicians and their flacks

By Robert Mann

There’s not a politician alive who gets everything he or she wants from the news media. And the same goes for reporters seeking information from public officials.

Reporters never get enough access. Politicians rarely see their words or actions portrayed in the best light.

Jackals feasting on a carcass, or how many politicians view the news media (Wikipedia)

Add to the list of aggrieved politicos Ann Romney, who says the press was too rough on her husband, Mitt, portraying him unfairly during last year’s presidential campaign.

Romney appeared on Fox News Sunday morning with her husband to discuss the campaign and their post-election life. Asked by host Chris Wallace about media coverage of the campaign, Ann said, laughing, “I’m happy to blame the media.”

“Do you think the media was in the tank for Barack Obama?” Wallace asked next.

“I think that any time you’re running for office, you always think that you’re being portrayed unfairly. Of course on our side, [we] believe there is more bias in favor of the other side,” Ann responded. “I think that’s a pretty universally felt opinion.”

Well, what’s “universally felt” is that reporters and public officials generally don’t get along. Never have.

Only days earlier, Washington was abuzz with talk of “threats” reportedly issued by a White House aide to famed investigative journalist Bob Woodward. Even though it turned out that the supposed threat (in fairness to Woodward, he never used that term) was really more of an apology, the incident sparked a spate of stories about the poisonous relationship between the Obama White House and the press corps.

Most of those stories involved one White House official or the other shouting/cursing/demeaning a reporter for refusing to adopt the official White House line about this event or that policy initiative.

What to make of all this?

First, as noted above, it’s not exactly news that journalists and politicians have an adversarial relationship. A watchdog press will invariably annoy and anger public officials who would rather do their work away from the public eye. That’s its job and I’m glad there are newspapers and other media organizations to do it.

In the United States, we give special status to the press and its role of keeping an eye on our politicians and other leaders. In fact, it’s the only businesses mentioned in the Constitution. It’s a special status that the media sometimes abuse but that is essential for an informed public in a democracy.

Second, many individuals on both sides – reporters and politicians and their flacks – seem to have lost their way and have forgotten what it takes to work effectively with the other side. A certain amount of healthy skepticism and wariness on both sides isn’t bad. But we’ve gone way beyond that.

I’m certainly not the only person to have worked both sides of this fence, but – having spent time as a newspaper reporter/political writer and then doing press for three U.S. senators and a governor — I do have my perspective on the relationship between journalists and politicians.

Here are a few lessons I learned during my twenty-plus years on the political side of the fence (maybe one day I’ll chime in with some advice for reporters, but I’ve been away from that profession for too long). Most are the lessons I learned after first violating them.

  1. Whining about your press coverage does not improve your press coverage.
  2. If you’re not getting positive press coverage, the fault is almost always yours, not the news media’s.
  3. Telling a reporter that her story is not worth covering is a very good way to ensure extensive coverage of that issue.
  4. Shouting at reporters and intimidating reporters might work in the short-term, but the long-term effects of that (on your news coverage and your soul) are corrosive and counterproductive.
  5. Raising your voice at a reporter about a story is often very helpful in getting the dreaded story on the front page.
  6. What they teach in college public relations courses really is true: you’ll get better press coverage if you work on building relationships with reporters, not figuring out brilliant ways to manipulate them.
  7. Working well with reporters doesn’t mean buying them meals or drinks; it means understanding the demands of their jobs and doing your best to help them do those jobs.
  8. Respect reporters and their deadlines. They are people with families, with whom they’d like to spend time after writing that story about you. If you help them with the information they need, in a timely fashion, you’ll have a better shot at being treated fairly and accurately in their stories.
  9. Reporters are very perceptive. If you hate them and regard them as the enemy, they pick up on that very quickly. While they try to be fair in their coverage of you, it’s difficult to be objective about someone who hates you.
  10. Lying to a reporter is the worst sin in press relations. And you will usually get caught. Sometimes immediately.
  11. A skilled, aggressive reporter assigned to cover your department or your elected official is often a blessing. He will sometimes learn about problems in your organization long before you do. A good relationship with that reporter doesn’t mean that mischief or improprieties don’t get covered, but it could make the vital difference in who gets blamed and how you are portrayed in his story. Sometimes, it might even mean learning about the problem in time to correct it or address it.
  12. If you are a Republican, you are most likely hard-wired to treat the mainstream press with disdain and deep suspicion. The creativity of your press releases or effectiveness of your media events pale in comparison to whether – and how well — you try to overcome a bias that will poison your relationships with the news media.
  13. That said, it’s possible to become too friendly with a reporter. You will usually regret this. One or both of you may be compromised in some way. Or, you will make the mistake of believing you have immunity from that reporter and her scrutiny. You probably do not.
  14. Not every reporter is fair and ethical. Many are not. But trust and cooperation is a two-way street. The press-flack relationship is really no different than any other. Treat someone like the enemy before you know her and most likely you’ve created an enemy.
  15. You may think your job is to protect your boss and his/her reputation and advance his/her political agenda. It’s not. You are, in essence, an officer of the court. You have a client, but your first duty is to the integrity of the system. Remember that when a reporter plops an unpleasant public records request on your desk. She’s not asking for your records; she’s asking for her records.
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15 Responses to Press abuse: 15 simple rules for politicians and their flacks

  1. Stephen Winham says:

    All good points. Let’s hope Kyle Plotkin and others will seriously consider your lessons. Although I resented the time I spent answering reporters’ questions during my public service, I did realize the importance of responding as quickly and honestly as possible. In my day, we could never have gotten away with refusing to return reporters’ phone calls or giving a “no comment” to legitimate questions from the media. Things have obviously changed.

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  2. So true. Someone should have texted these to Rep Ellison before he went on Hannity the other night…. 🙂

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  3. ttnancy says:

    Very insightful. Should be required reading on both sides of the fence – and by the management they report to, as well

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  4. Bob Johannessen says:

    All 15 points are right on the money, Bob. But, today, too many government press people have never had a job as a journalist, so they do not subscribe to your 15th point. (They probably don’t even understand your point.) Instead, they are brought up to despise the media … to think of reporters as the enemy. The result is a dehumanizing of the reporter and a lack of even trying to work with a reporter to ensure they get accurate and timely information and answers.

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  5. Gene Sands says:

    Good points, Bob. However, yourr comments about Republicans being hard wired is not ncessarily so,. I have a number of good friends in the PR/PA business who are Republicans and their credentials as first-rate professionals are without question.

    Keep up the good work!

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  6. Chris Peacock says:

    Bob — Perceptive, insightful stuff, as usual. Your rules reminded me of several others that I learned from our friend, the old pro Jack DeVore:
    –Call the reporter back, even when the news is bad and questions are tough.
    –Get back to them promptly, so they’ll know they can turn to you in a pinch, and be accurate, so that they’ll have confidence they can use what you’re telling them.
    –Keep feeding reporters news they can use — he called them ‘doggie biscuits’ — because if they get hungry and you’re not feeding them, they’ll bit your arm off.

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  7. Randy Hayden says:

    One of my favorite quotes from Joseph Pulitzer…” The role of the media is to comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable.”

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  8. Pingback: 22 rules for journalists | Something Like the Truth

  9. kristybesant says:

    Thanks for sharing and you hit the nail on the head. That’s why I love reading your blog, Bob!

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  10. Rene' Greer says:

    Love this. I have often been thankful that we were educated in Journalism classes, where integrity and ethics were emphasized. One point I would add is that our relationships with reporters are depicted in their stories. Building and earning the trust of reporters is crucial to earning the trust of the publics we serve.

    Likewise, if we are at the table with the decision-makers in our organizations, we can advocate for fair and responsible decisions and actions that are in the long-term, best interest of our publics. This lets us move beyond the role of flack, so we are not just “controlling the narrative.” We’re helping to create a better reality that then becomes a story we are eager to tell.

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