Shortly after September 11, Jay Leno joked, "Gary Condit couldn't
get in the papers if a shark bit him in the ass." But the entire
landscape of political journalism was changing long before then, and PR
people have had to change the way they pitch. David Ward reports
As any elected official, legislative aide, or government reporter will
tell you, politics is addictive. The exclusive access to the ins and
outs of public policy-making, party skirmishes, and election-night joy
or anguish is a potent mix that often turns its participants at the
local, state, and national levels into lifers far more interested in the
process of government than the result.
But political journalism, while intriguing for insiders, is suffering
from a perceived decline in standards. Despite the proliferation of
cable news outlets, websites, syndicated radio programming, and print
publications devoted to politics, it can be argued that the public may
know less about the role of government in daily life than ever
"Political journalism suffers from the same affliction as journalism in
general, which is a lack of substance," says Mack Bradley, vice
president with St. Louis-based The Vandiver Group. Bradley argues that
this trend has been going on for 20 years, and stems from a general
detachment Americans have from their government.
"What the reader tends to want is the 'gotcha' story," says Stan
Collender, national director of public affairs for Fleishman-Hillard.
"Depending on the publication, you do have beat reporters that focus on
the economy, and those people are always looking for substantive
stories. But the front pages of The Washington Post and The New York
Times often end up being what the Republicans are saying about the
Democrats, and whether Dick Gephardt is getting along with Dennis
Hastert as much as what the bottom-line implications for you and your
Media bias beyond left versus right
This is especially true among television political reporters. With the
exception of outlets such as C-SPAN, NY1, and, in certain instances,
CNN, most TV outlets are looking for visuals, conflict, and
personalities, often at the expense of nuanced analysis.
But PR execs also need to understand the particular biases of the
reporters and the outlets they represent. "The good reporters really
work hard to cover and understand the issues, but each reporter's
coverage reflects the priorities laid out by their newspapers," says Dan
Weiller, press officer for the New York State Assembly in Albany, NY.
"The tabloids of New York City cover Albany differently from, say, The
New York Times."
"On a national level, you'll see the networks put a correspondent on a
particular candidate, and if that candidate wins the Presidency, the
correspondent will end up covering the White House," notes Steven Swatt,
NCG/Porter Novelli partner and GM of its Sacramento, CA office. "It
raises a concern in that if it can help your own career advancement if
the candidate you're covering wins, do you want that candidate to win,
and does that impact your coverage?"
The other lament among PR professionals is that regardless of whether
the seat of power is Washington, DC, the state capital, or the local
city hall, the number of issues and pending legislation is far greater
than can be covered in a media outlet. "It's difficult to break through
the clutter," says Swatt. "I know some folks in PR firms in Sacramento
who tell me they don't even bother with the state-capital press corps
anymore because they've been covering politics and government for so
long, they've gotten cynical."
Collender says that in DC, the three most important news outlets are The
Washington Post, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal.
While not impossible to pitch, Collender says it helps to establish
relationships with these outlets by delivering solid information in an
unbiased, straightforward way. "If what you've done in the past is spin
stories, they'll be more reticent to take your call," he says.
On a national level, the leading political reporters include David
Broder and EJ Dionne of The Washington Post, David Rosenbaum and Richard
Stevensen of The New York Times, George Hager of USA Today, Evan Thomas
and Michael Isikoff of Newsweek, James Warren of the Chicago Tribune,
David Gregory of NBC, Brit Hume of Fox News Channel, and Alan Stewart
Murray, Washington bureau chief for The Wall Street Journal.
But there are also political commentators - including conservative radio
talk-show host Rush Limbaugh, Hardball moderator Chris Matthews, and New
York Times columnist Maureen Dowd - who can have an astonishing amount
of influence in interpreting political news for the average person.
Analyzing the analysis
Indeed, in an era when several "all news, all the time" television
networks have an insatiable news hole to fill each day, a huge portion
of political coverage has shifted away from breaking stories to
analysis, and in some cases, analyzing the analysis.
Stories such as the disappearance of Chandra Levy and her relationship
with Representative Gary Condit (D-CA) take on a life of their own,
often pushing more important - albeit complex - political debates off to
the side. "The political press generally tends to latch on to one big
issue, and ride it until it dies," says Swatt.
But Mike Paul, president of New York City-based MGP & Associates PR,
argues that instead of bemoaning the personality-driven aspects - and in
some cases, the ideological slant - of modern American political
journalism, PR people should use those angles to their clients'
advantage. "When you're talking to someone from the New York Post, you
know they're looking at it from a conservative angle," he says. "And
when you're talking to someone from The Village Voice, you know they're
looking at it from an ultra-liberal point of view."
Paul also warns against pitching political reporters with insider
Instead, he advises keeping the lingo to a minimum, and always keeping
the final readers at the forefront of every contact. "You always want to
make sure complex issues are accompanied by simpler examples that the
layman can understand," he says.
Paul adds that since the September 11 terrorist attacks, reporters -
especially in New York City - are often doing double duty, writing
several stories a day for multiple beats. He took that into
consideration when doing PR for the Democratic primary runoff debate
held by his client: New School University Graduate School of Urban
Policy. "They wanted to make sure the place was packed with reporters,"
he says. Paul only reached the city's three main papers, as well as
Spanish-language and other ethnic papers. But he also contacted numerous
reporters within each outlet, focusing not just on City Hall reporters,
but also on those who cover the metro and education beats.
"We contacted reporters a week in advance and told them, 'You heard of
the event. I want to make sure you get the information you need. Tell me
what angle you're going to be coming from,'" Paul says. "The result was
that the debate was one of the top local news stories alongside the
World Trade Center recovery efforts and the decision by Rudy Giuliani
not to seek a third term."
Perhaps the secret, then, is to employ a classic PR tactic: fine-tuned
WHERE TO GO
Newspapers: The New York Times; The Wall Street Journal; The Washington
Post; Washington Times; New York Daily News; New York Post; Chicago
Tribune; USA Today; The Village Voice
Magazines: National Journal; National Review; The New Republic; Time;
Newsweek; US News & World Report; New York; Washingtonian; The New
Yorker; Vanity Fair
Trade publications: Congressional Quarterly; Roll Call; The Hill; The
Hotline; Congress Daily
TV & Radio: Fox News Channel; CNN; CNBC; Bloomberg News; C-SPAN; NBC;
ABC; CBS; MSNBC; NPR
Internet: The Drudge Report; CapitalImpact.com.