Katie Connolly spent this year covering the McCain campaign for Newsweek's special 2008 election project. Connolly was granted behind-the-scenes access to the campaign with the agreement that none of her reporting would be published until after Election Day. She recently spoke with PRWeek about her experience riding the Straight Talk Express.
PRWeek: As a journalist, was it challenging to have to sit on the story you had until the election was over?
Katie Connolly: It was a little frustrating to be a part of this conversation, taking part with other journalists and pundits, and to know that [I] couldn't have a voice or weigh in. But on the flip side of that, I didn't really want to let my information get out there. What is so great about the story that we do is that it has all this context. We were able to tell story with real color and life. We were able to bring the characters to life in way that you just can't do in 600-word or 800-word news reports. We had the luxury to be able to create a narrative. In that sense it wasn't tempting to tell people what I'd learned or jump into that conversation because I liked where we could go with a larger narrative.
PRWeek: Were you ever concerned that you'd be faced with information that you thought should be released before Election Day?
Connolly: Obviously, if we learned something that we thought was of critical news importance that we didn't think other people were going to learn, we'd take that up with our editors. But for the most part, what I was doing was reflective. I would go back and try to reconstruct important events after they happened. What I was doing was less about trying to break news, so I was in that position less often than you would think. There were times I was in the position of knowing things weren't being reported – but it was often just little things that in and of themselves weren't really newsworthy.
There are also so many people covering these campaigns that if there is something really huge, somebody will find out. [For example], the [Alaska Gov. Sarah] Palin clothes story. I got it at the end of this process, and within a day, the Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post had it.
PRWeek: What was it like to primarily rely on sources outside of the official spokespeople?
Connolly: [My sources] knew that nothing they told me would be reported until after the election. They felt comfortable with that. Depending on their comfort level, they would either talk on background or ask me to run quotes by them first. Some people were entirely off the record. The reason [even they] were useful for me is because they then alerted me to questions that I needed to ask people who were speaking for the record.
PRWeek: You used the term “undisciplined” to describe the McCain camp because of all the leaks. Why do you think this was such an issue for them?
Connolly: The [McCain camp] was notorious for not being disciplined. Part of [the reason for that] is, when McCain won the nomination, [his] was a very small campaign. He had been written off effectively in 2007, so when he actually won it, they were still very short on money and had a very small staff…unlike the Obama campaign. Because [the McCain camp] was more cobbled together, it lent itself to a lack of discipline. I also think losing campaigns tend to be a bit leakier. If things aren't going well, you're more likely to have disgruntled staff, and disgruntled staff are more inclined to leak to the press. So covering a losing campaign in some ways can be a bit more fun.
PRWeek: You've said the media reports of tension between the McCain and Palin camps were overblown. What gave you that sense?
Connolly: [Because of the] idea that McCain himself was having huge problems with Palin herself. The tension I didn't sense was between those two people. I think the tension was more at a lower level. It more about staff wanting to control what happened in Palin's world and that [didn't happen]. It wasn't this crazy backstabbing environment. There were just people for whom things didn't go the way they wanted them to go and they made those feelings clear. And that started the post-election back fighting war. But I think while the campaign was happening, it wasn't as extreme as it has come out in the aftermath.
PRWeek: Do you think the McCain team was media savvy?
Connolly: There were times when they were very media savvy. You can point to that period when they did the celebrity ad. They really controlled the conversation for awhile after Obama had dominated the media cycle. My personal take is that they became too interested in the day-to-day minutia of cable TV and blogs. They became very interested in how they were being reported on in those environments at the expense of a broader media strategy. So it became very tactical on a day-to-day basis without tying it all back to a key narrative or message. They were very interested in what was happening on Morning Joe each day, but campaigns aren't won and lost by a bad appearance on Morning Joe or a good appearance on Morning Joe. Campaigns are won and lost over long-term narratives.
PRWeek: But Palin's interview with Katie Couric is considered a definitive turning point for her?
Connolly: But I think they could have ameliorated that. That was really the only thing the public saw of Palin for four days. She had one bad interview that got strung out over several days. When they saw the interview go bad, [they didn't] say, ‘Oh, wow, we better do some damage control here.' There was no counter-prevailing narrative about Palin out there. Had they got her out on a bunch of other talk shows or done a bunch of [other] interviews then you wouldn't have this one bad interview dominating. I'm still not sure why they sequestered her away during that period.
PRWeek: Were there ever moments you felt like you were denied access that you wanted?
Connolly: You always want more access. I would have loved to be in the room for debate prep, but that was never going to happen. There was always some amount of access that they were never going to let me have or any reporter.
PRWeek: Did you have any contact with McCain's communications team?
Connolly: It was interesting for me not relying on the official communications people because I wasn't interested in the official line of the day. What I was interested in was who was in the meeting when the official line for that day was first floated, whose idea was it, how did they come up with this particular narrative. For the communications people, it's their job to stay on message and hammer home the message that they wanted to dominate the news cycle that day. So it was most useful for me to circumvent them.
Certainly, I talked to the communications people and certainly tried to get their behind the scenes notions. But they're incredibly disciplined and they want to stay on message. They're not interested in telling you the story of a meeting or behind the scenes of an event. That's not their specialty.
PRWeek: What do you think of Palin's post-election media exposure?
Connolly: I think she is doing a pretty smart thing being back in Alaska and being photographed in jeans in her kitchen, looking like a regular person. Obviously there is this notion of her being a diva – which is the word that got used. She's trying to fight back against that and that's a good way to do that. I think Sarah Palin has a very instinctive sense of her own appeal and what people like about her. And she knows how to work that. She's very instinctive in that sense. I think we'll see more of this down-to-earth, folksy Sarah Palin over the next couple of years and the powersuit wearing Palin who we saw at the end of the McCain campaign.
PRWeek: What was the most remarkable thing about the entire presidential campaign, from a communications perspective?
Connolly: One thing the Obama camp did particularly well was consistent branding. They made it cool to have an Obama bumper sticker – that's quite a feat in politics. And I think that's something that people in [PR] should study.
PRWeek: How did you end up on this assignment?
Connolly: Before coming to Newsweek, I was studying for a master's in public policy and campaigns and elections were one of my areas of concentration. I was looking for a way - within journalism - to cover the campaign in an interesting fashion. I heard about this project that Newsweek does and made my interest in it very known. And, eventually, I got selected for it because everyone knew I was very interested in doing it and I had the perfect background in doing it.