Partisan cable networks require careful pitching strategy

In terms of ratings, not politics, count Fox News Channel as a beneficiary of the election of Barack Obama.

In terms of ratings, not politics, count Fox News Channel as a beneficiary of the election of Barack Obama. At times this year, the network, largely considered the news source of record for conservatives, has beaten the combination of ratings of rivals MSNBC and CNN by itself. MSNBC, which has added more liberal hosts in the past year, meanwhile, jumped the one-time leader CNN into second place during March.

That seemingly growing appetite for partisan content also means PR professionals must delicately plan their cable news outreach based on what groups they're targeting, and what segments of the population they can afford to offend.

Organizations that want to appeal to mass audiences – right, left, and center – often take their messages to various outlets, says Jim Popkin, founder of Seven Oaks Media Group and a former producer for NBC News. Those that appear on only left- or right-leaning networks often do so to reach a particular politically inclined audience, he adds.

“For some clients, it's attractive, and they see [appearing on one network] as an advantage. If they want to pulse their base or hit a core group of people, it's an easy play for them and so they may want to only go on one channel,” he says. “Other folks see that as an echo chamber, and if they want to be more broad-based and they don't want to be identified with one channel or political persuasion or party… You make a statement, to some degree, by choosing only one [cable network].”

Some issues lend themselves to a variety of political persuasions, so PR pros might pitch the same client to separate partisan outlets, albeit with distinct angles. Charter schools are one example, says Bill McIntyre, EVP of Grassroots Enterprise. An advocacy group might publicize the progressive aspects of a charter school program, such as better education for minority groups, while explaining the benefits of job creation or private schools to conservative allies, he explains.

“They have to have a really smart plan to make sure that they get attention on places that make sense,” McIntyre says.

Companies that stand to benefit from pending legislation can lose the most from identifying themselves with only one side of the aisle. For example, entities hoping for passage of the president's stimulus bill earlier this year avoided alienating potential supporters by not appearing on partisan cable news programs, says Zachary Hastings Hooper, SVP at the Rosen Group.

“Those guys tend to play it down the middle of the road a little bit more, and it's very difficult to deal with something that requires bipartisan support because you have to sell that to both sides of the aisle,” he says.

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