ANALYSIS: Personal relationships - Covering public figures' lives:a personal matter. Reporters always want the scoop on what goes on inthe private lives of public figures...

Public Lives, Public Affairs. At a recent press conference, on May

31, the first question from the White House press corps to White House

press secretary Ari Fleischer was not about President Bush's

environmental policies, or tax plans, or even the defection of Senator

James Jeffords from the Republican party. It was about underage drinking

charges against the president's 19-year-old twin daughters. The next ten

questions were on the same subject.

Was this fair? In an interview with PRWeek, Ari Fleischer said he

believes the press has a right to ask any question it wishes. But he

believes it is the job of the PR practitioner to push right back. "I

cannot object to the press asking about items that are newsworthy

because the law is involved," says Fleischer. "I can and will object to

the press writing about private matters within a family."

Fleischer's objection is a difficult one for the press to stomach.

Modern-day fascination with the personal peccadilloes of politicians

began in 1987 when The Miami Herald unearthed Gary Hart's adulterous

affair with a young model during his 1988 presidential bid. The press

coverage reached its zenith - or nadir - with Clinton. But today, the

private lives of public officials have become fair game, as George W.,

his brother Jeb, New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani, Bob Kerrey and the

Rev. Jesse Jackson will attest.

This means that the wit and ken of the spokesperson must be put to as

much use answering questions about love and marriage as it is about

Congressional ballot hearings or the passage of a bill into law.

Who is fair game? Even business leaders can potentially expect scrutiny,

if they are a big enough name, and if their behavior is sufficiently


But the most likely public figures are, of course, politicians, and the

press secretaries and PR consultants that advise them can be faced with

an incredible barrage of personal questions against their client or


The most important thing to remember, say experts, is to separate client

service and emotional involvement and not to feel the need to answer

every question yourself.

No to no comment

One of the most widely espoused rules of PR is never to say "no

comment." But the recent experience of Jeb Bush brings that saw into

question. Lou Colasuonno, partner at Westhill Media Strategies, says the

Florida governor blundered when he publicly denied a long-running rumor

of an adulterous affair, first with Secretary of State Katherine Harris,

then with Cynthia Henderson, former Playboy bunny and current Florida

Secretary of the Department of Management Services. The rumor first came

to light in The Guardian (of London). Denials of the rumor were reported

in two state newspapers, the St. Petersburg Times and The Orlando

Sentinel. But when Jeb Bush publicly denied the allegations at a

(public) bill signing, the story went national.

"The last thing you want to do is create a negative story where one

might not exist," says Colasuonno. "You shouldn't say 'no comment' or

delay commenting, unless a comment would create, legitimize, or prolong

a crisis on which the source has no substantive evidence."

Beating the press to the punch

When the journalist clearly has a story, however, speed is of the

essence. "The key is getting in front of the news," says Colasuonno. His

advice is classically illustrated by his work with the Rev. Jesse

Jackson. Three days before the story broke that Jackson had fathered an

illegitimate child, Colasuonno began calling contacts at the New York

Post and New York Daily News to get reporters a statement from Jackson

before they filed their stories.

"His response became the lead to the first day story, which gained us a

voice and set the tenor for the story. Anyone who will write a story

about this will go to the database and see the first day story is about

the Rev. Jackson apologizing for what he had done, making it clear he

had supported the child emotionally and financially, had apologized and

spoke to his family and that the people close to him knew about this.

That, rather than a story about "Jesse's Love Child," was the story"

How do you get the heads-up if these stories are brewing? Colasuonno

says his relationships with members of the media allow him to figure out

where a story will break and get information to the right reporters. But

he admits "You don't always get a call. (Journalists) might call at

5:30am and then the story runs the next morning."

Sometimes knowing the story is coming isn't tricky. When Bob Kerrey went

to Westhill, a reporter had been working for more than two years on the

story of Kerrey's possible war crimes as a Navy SEAL in Vietnam.

Michael Powell, a partner at Westhill, says pre-empting a story to run

in the Sunday New York Times Magazine was job one. Job two through seven

was to get messages and statements together for not only Kerrey, but

also six of the seven men who were with him the night of possible

civilian murders. (A seventh SEAL team member disputed the memories of

the other men.)

The crisis team used a password-protected extranet to post every

article, memo, talking point and speech. With so many people involved in

the story, the extranet also allowed chat threads, secure group e-mail

and immediate responses to crisis suggestions.

But how do you ask a client whether or not they did the deed? Powell

says a lawyerly approach can be best. "Lawyers seldom ask 'Did you do

it?'" he says. "They say: 'You've been charged with such and such, this

is the evidence they have, this is what people are saying, how do you

square this, how do you respond to this?'"

Juleanna Glover Weiss is no stranger to personal intrusions into the

lives of her bosses. As communications director for Mayor Giuliani

during his Senate campaign race, silence was the initial counsel when

rumors of an adulterous affair first emerged.

After he aborted his campaign against a backdrop of prostate cancer and

increasing media scrutiny, Giuliani's declarations resembled public


While Glover Weiss will not comment on his vociferous declarations, one

gets the feeling that the press team has lost control amid the public

feuding over his divorce.

Glover Weiss is happier to recount her experience as Dick Cheney's press

secretary, even though his dicky heart has made for a lot of


"We provide as much information as possible, but the only people that

can talk are the physicians," says Glover Weiss. "It's much easier when

you have a secondary information source you can point to that can speak

with authority," she continues. "With a health issue, we limit our


Even if the questions are of a more personal vein, however, the silent

dignity of former White House press secretary Mike McCurry can also

stand you in good stead. "Don't feel you have to answer every question,"

says one former press secretary. Sometimes, it's more than your job is


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