MEDIA ROUNDUP: News shows require fresh approach

Because Sunday news programs mainly look to government officials when booking their guests, PR pros should try to influence the topics of the shows instead.

Because Sunday news programs mainly look to government officials when booking their guests, PR pros should try to influence the topics of the shows instead.

Despite an ever-changing cast of politicians and policy makers, Washington, DC, remains a city of old habits, and one of those takes place on weekends. "Washington on Sunday is quiet two times," says Craig Shirley, president of Shirley & Bannister. "In the morning, when everyone watches Tim Russert, Face the Nation, or Fox [News], and in the afternoon, when the Redskins are on." Even with the arrival of all-news cable outlets, the internet, and political talk radio, it's safe to say Face the Nation, Meet the Press, This Week, and Fox News Sunday are still considered the best media "get" in Washington. They serve as the platform where every governor with national political aspirations wants his or her coming out, as well as the place where top officials go to articulate the latest policies. "The crowd 'inside-the-Beltway' will still follow those Sunday morning shows religiously for a chance to hear directly from newsmakers who don't necessarily do appearances on cable news," says Khristine Bershers, director of media services for the Heritage Foundation. But for public affairs, these programs represent a near-impossible target for most clients. "Those shows are so proscribed in terms of the topics that they tend not to be responsive to a traditional pitch," says Gwen McKinney, president of Washington-based McKinney & Associates. "For one thing, it's the news cycle that drives them. And for another, they want to be picked up by The Washington Post and The New York Times on Monday, so they are not going to be looking for some little guy with thoughtful insights. They want top politicians." Recent changes Though the format, with the political and policy-making elite being interviewed by top journalists, stays consistent, the Sunday morning news shows have gone through some changes in recent years. Ever conscious of ratings, all the Sunday news programs are far more likely to advance or promote their latest exclusive guests, not only to increase viewership, but also to alert the rest of the national press corps that they are very likely to have news worth following up on. "In the old days, it was more high-minded policy discussions, and I think, probably, the ratings reflected it," says Shirley, who last year was able to place Sen. Zell Miller (D-GA) on Meet the Press for the launch of his book, A National Party No More. "Now it's as much about the sizzle as it is about the steak. They like to create their own news, and so Sunday afternoon on the wires you see a quote from Dick Cheney or Colin Powell from Meet the Press." The tone of these shows also tends to be far more civil than the nightly shout-fest found on Hannity & Colmes, but make no mistake - this is still high-stakes political hardball. "Everyone would agree that probably Tim Russert is the best interviewer on television, but they all do a great deal of prepping," Shirley says. "They used to ask a question, get an answer, and then ask another question. But now most guys do follow-up questions based on the answers they receive because they're so well prepared." This, combined with the shows' prestige, makes thoroughly preparing guests all the more imperative. "We always do 'murder boards' for our clients - 20 or 30 hard questions and the answers - and we sit them down for an hour or two and drill them, and help them shape their responses," Shirley says. Shaping the debate Though it is a bit easier to place guests on these shows during non-election years, most public policy pros suggest the best strategy for Sunday morning national programs might be to focus more on shaping the debate. "When they want to talk about defense, they don't really need an expert from our group because they can get Donald Rumsfeld," Bershers says. But I can get the studies that we do in the hands of producers so a Tim Russert can say the Heritage Foundation had this to say about the new farm bill when questioning Tom Daschle." Shirley also notes the increased interest in the advertising that surrounds elections is also providing new opportunities to influence these shows. "One of our clients is Club for Growth, and it has a commercial set to run in South Dakota against Daschle," he says. "One of my account executives offered Meet the Press an exclusive on the ad before its release, and [the show was] very interested," he says. Pitching... Sunday news shows
  • The Sunday morning news shows are the Holy Grail for political and public affairs PR, but are really hard to get onto. Work instead to get policy papers in the hands of producers, so at least your clients have a chance at shaping the debate.
  • No booker is immune to getting the hot guest that the competition won't have, so look to offer up exclusives, especially for politically themed books and authors.
  • A good performance on Meet the Press, Face the Nation, This Week, and Fox News Sunday can often make a politician's or policy maker's career, so make sure you do extra preparation beforehand, including hours of crafting potential questions.

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