Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Don't meet the press

One of the biggest public relations theory tests of all time is playing before us with the vice presidential campaign of Gov. Sarah Palin.

Can somebody run for the vice presidency of the United States with a press strategy based on avoiding the press?

Since her candidacy was announced at the end of August, John McCain's public relations team have prevented Palin from speaking with any reporters with the notable exceptions of ABC News' Charles Gibson, CBS News' Katie Couric. the unsurprising Fox News Channel when those first two interviews backfired, and the one vice presidential debate last week.

While everybody else on the campaign trail has granted hundreds of interviews, most of the press coverage Palin has received has been her speeches at campaign rally stops.

As anybody familiar with the overuse and implications of the phrase "no comment" knows, a public figure avoiding going on the record has the distinct implication of something to hide. Nobody could be more under this microscope than a politician running for one of the highest offices in the land. Except, instead of the typical stonewall silence of somebody who does not wish to comment, reporters are forced to capture Palin with scripted speeches and that's all they have to run with.

This strategy has enraged a number of journalists, notably CNN anchor Campbell Brown, who has become kind of a cult hero when she broke out from her typical role not long ago to do some on-air editorializing.

It's age old parent psychology that the more you don't allow your kid to do something, the more they want to do it. When something is taboo, it becomes so enticing you have to have it. Thus, the curiosity factor about the cutoff Palin -- an attractive "hockey mom" who was nominated out of nowhere, from a state seems to be another world from the "lower 49" -- has just multiplied. Less is more.

At a time of fast social media news delivery, special interest groups sponsoring TV commercials and film screenings, independently published political books and grassroots door-to-door campaigning, can the traditional news media spurned by Palin make or break McCain's campaign? Is it possible to win on a "no comment" campaign?

I understand what it's like to be the gatekeeper of a potential news bomb. For nearly a dozen years, I was the US press representative for wily UK media mogul Felix Dennis, who always had a propensity for saying outrageous things during press interviews, veering wildly off topic into dangerous territory, and even drinking a few too many bottles of wine, leading him to say things he wished he hadn't.

I found myself turning down at least half of Felix's media requests because I had to reduce the chances of a blooper slipping by, especially if there was no news involved and they just wanted a juicy morsel from Mr. Dennis. As quotable as Felix was, my job was to reduce the odds of anything damaging being said.

I know that turning down some interviews can be a legitimate press strategy, as long as you still avail yourself when there is news and it's not canned.

However, it feels like kids stuff next to running for high political office, where every American is entitled to find out where you stand on issues day to day. As Peter Himler noted today on his blog, the pundits are blogging away, saying cable news should just pull out from Palin coverage until she gives her first press conference.

So far, it's just a lot of talk and Twittering. On November 4th, we'll see if America really cares about who is running for vice president, and if so, will Gov. Sarah Palin's end-run around mainstream press interviews make a difference to the typical voter and legitimize this PR tact? It would be very sad to think that nobody would care.

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