Matter Chatter

Making the Best of Being Human

Having left reporting and anchoring behind, I find myself less engaged with the political issues and parties of the day. What is still fascinating from a public relations standpoint is the way politicians (people under self- imposed extreme scrutiny) interact with other people (the scrutinizers… voters, press, employees and even family members).

After a speech on Sunday (see coverage and video from the speech and exchange with the New York Times here), presidential hopeful Rick Santorum got into an exchange with a New York Times reporter about comments on another candidate in the race. In this case what he said isn’t the issue as the message and tone is on-par with the overall tenor of this election cycle. What is truly fascinating is the breakdown in communication that led to the story and lessons from a PR professional’s perspective on how to make the best of this all too human situation.

From Santorum point of view, here’s what is missed by the reader/viewer:

1) Context: With limited time in a newscast or room for a story, there is a limited amount of context that can be provided and most of us didn’t see how Santorum set up his comments nor are we able to see how he followed them up on stage.

2) Exhaustion: Having covered a presidential political campaign for just a couple of weeks I can tell you without a doubt that it is one of the most exhausting endeavors a person can do and it is visually evident with Mr. Santorum

3) Repetition fatigue: A news director once barged into the booth where I had just wrapped a newscast and cursed me out six ways to Sunday for shortening a story and dropping it from the lead. When asked to explain myself, my answer was simple: I had led with the story for 5 hours straight and though it was a big story, I felt it was stale after leading with it for 10 newscasts. The News Directors response has forever stuck with me, “The average radio listener (in 1996) turns on and off the radio 4 times a day and listens for about 23 minutes at a time. We are lucky if they hear one newscast and thrilled if they hear two or three. You may have given that lead story ten times, but the average listener heard it once!” Santorum no doubt has delivered that message on stage dozens of times and perhaps on the fly tweaked the script and adlibbed a bit if for no other reason than for his own sanity. His comment inadvertently leaves out the mention of healthcare when comparing Romney and Obama and context in every breath is crucial when cameras are on.

Lessons learned:

1) Fight repetition fatigue by reminding yourself that you are in-font of a new audience and the message, though potentially wearing, is important enough to end with context each time.

2) DO NOT take the question from the reporter personally… they are doing a job to unravel their perceived version of the truth. If they unravel you in the process they have a better story and remember… they are the ones telling it.

3) During a confrontational interview if you have made your point, remind the reporter POLITELY that you made that point, say it calmly again, thank the reporter for their time and disengage. DO NOT get mad or at least don’t let them see you get mad.

Next suggested steps:

1) Turn the negative into a positive by utilizing the extra attention to further your message

2) Apologize in this case the profanity and for over-reacting to the inadvertent (whether it was or not) mistake by the reporter whose question misquoted you.

3) See #1 again and again and again

From the New York Times’ perspective, covering a campaign is grueling and exhausting work with constant deadlines, travel. There are an endless barrage of interviews with supporters, detractors, pollsters and pundits along the way. There is seldom time to scarf down a sandwich let alone digest all the information swarming around you and to relay it in a new way. It’s important that the company does a better job of helping their reporters battle campaign fatigue or at least remind them to better qualify their questions so they do not break the cardinal rule to not become the story, but report the story. They might offer to interview Santorum again, in a calmer environment, or perhaps even interview the reporter and Santorum together. Since the toothpaste is out of the tube and the reporter can’t put it back in, they might as well seize the opportunity and present a complete and exclusive story.

How would you handle the reaction if you were in Santorum’s PR camp – or the New York Times’?