February 9, 2016

Some Musings on Campaign Coverage

Fifteen years have passed since I was a young reporter in South Carolina covering the race for the Republican presidential nomination.

So much has changed since those early days, early days for me anyway. There wasn’t yet any social media nor widespread use of smart phones. 9/11 had not occurred, and we couldn’t even begin to comprehend the geopolitical shift that was soon to take place.

As I watch the primaries unfold, I still think back to that time with a degree of fondness. As a local ABC affiliate reporter, I likely would never have had access to people like Senator John McCain or then Governor George W. Bush. But covering them – particularly McCain – became like covering a local city council member. McCain was everywhere trying to win the GOP nomination.

On a quiet Sunday, I interviewed McCain on camera at what I remember as the local VFW Post. I may have even been the only reporter covering him that day. Such interactions helped build my confidence and skills and allowed me to treat “famous people” just like anyone else. By talking to politicians and well-known figures regularly, a reporter can learn how to be quick on one’s feet and overcome intimidation. I learned more about this a few years later when I moved on to Washington as a correspondent.

I interviewed then Governor Bush as he exited the campaign plane, and asked about his record versus John McCain’s. The answer (paraphrased at least) still stays with me: “I’ve been in the trenches. I’ve been to Mexico.” Little did I, or frankly, Mr. Bush know then how much he’d have to learn about foreign policy and how it would define his administration and legacy—and utterly reshape the world.

From a strictly PR perspective, what strikes me now as I watch the coverage is how so many of the candidates (on both sides of the aisle) work to stay on message. Sometimes there are wonderful moments of candor, and at other times, it’s clear that the candidates are sticking to their talking points.

I’m quite certain – pretty sure – that I didn’t have the chops then to get a candidate to veer off message and back onto my question. Not always anyway. I was a pretty tough interviewer, but it wasn’t until I became a public relations professional that I realized how answers are often scripted and repeated and repeated again. The best candidates, of course, know that they need to answer the question that was asked, but they still answer in a way that benefits their campaign (which often means a talking point or theme is attached to what seems like a candid answer).

About five years ago as I mused on my career so far, I began to wonder if social media would replace the need for public relations, especially traditional media relations. What I’ve learned, however, is that the opposite is true. There’s more coverage than ever before, and the lines between journalism, blogging and commentary have become increasingly blurred. The need to have a defined, controlled message is more important than ever. As the candidate, you have to make your voice heard and properly understood in what can be a tough, noisy media universe. The same, by the way, is true for financial and professional services executives who are trying to get out a company brand message and point of view.

The old journalist in me will never go away, and I deeply understand that reporters need to probe and push. If anything, there should be more of this—too many of the candidates offer “spin answers” and attack the media too frequently. The notion of reporter bias is overplayed. Reporters have a job to do.

But I do think there’s a happy medium. One has the right to emphasize what’s important to one’s campaign and value system. Put another way, reporters have their job; and the interviewees have their job, too.

Look for the questions and answers to get tougher and sharper, as we move through the primary season and onto the general election. It’s a time when many a local reporter in a key primary state will end his/her campaign trail travels with some valuable experience and lessons learned along the way.

By: Seth Linden