Play Loose With the Media and Get Burned

August 25 2006, 9:09 PM
Politicians and staffers are always trying to find ways to earn more "free media," which is the term for getting your name or message into newspapers or on television or radio. Politicians often go to great lengths to attract reporters for their press conferences, and some are much better at it than others. It's a difficult thing to do, particularly in the middle of a busy election season, because everybody is trying to bend a reporter's ear this time of year. Republican Rick O'Donnell, who is running for congress in district seven (Jefferson County, Adams County and Aurora) is a good example of how not to play with the media. Earlier this week O'Donnell's staff promoted an upcoming news conference with vigor, claiming that their candidate would make a "blockbuster" announcement on Wednesday. O'Donnell's "blockbuster announcement" did attract a handful of reporters and photographers, but when it turned out that he didn't really have anything to announce, the reporters turned on him. Check out Mike Littwin's column from the Rocky Mountain News:
Facing a crowd of three reporters and two photographers, O'Donnell stood in front of the Republic Plaza and revealed that his opponent therein, Ed Perlmutter, was a . . . lawyer. Yes. With a degree. And with clients. In fact, not only is Perlmutter a lawyer with a degree and with clients, he is, O'Donnell said repeatedly, a 17th Street lawyer with a degree and clients and an office on the 48th floor. Meaning, he's a . . . successful lawyer. And one with a great view. Of course, O'Donnell didn't stop there. He also said, three times in a two-minute span, that Perlmutter was not just a lawyer and not just a 17th Street lawyer and not just a bankruptcy lawyer and not just a corporate lawyer, but that he was a special-interest-driven partisan politician lawyer, who might have had conflicts of interest when he was a state senator - but that O'Donnell really didn't know; he just thought somebody should ask. And while that may not seem exactly like a blockbuster - and O'Donnell himself tried to dampen his staff-driven expectation just before he went on - you try saying special-interest-driven partisan politician lawyer three times in two minutes. Poor O'Donnell. He's a smart young man - who likes to call himself a reformer - who wants to be a politician so badly he can't help acting exactly like a politician. That's too bad. Come on. The lawyer gambit?
Well, that didn't turn out so well. Not only did O'Donnell not make a splash with his "blockbuster announcement," he managed to piss off the reporters who did show up. Reporters don't like being played, so when you say you have a "blockbuster announcement," then you had damn well better have a "blockbuster announcement." If you don't, not only will you not get much press coverage, but the coverage you do receive will make you look like a boob. Perhaps worse, the next time you want to call a press conference and you really do have a big announcement to make...reporters aren't going to be excited about showing up. It's the classic story of the boy who cried wolf. Colorado's news media have a lot of races to cover this year, and they don't have enough staff to cover everything. When forced to make a decision on one event over another, they're going to go where they think something might actually happen. O'Donnell just made them think the next time he calls a press conference, it will perhaps be as useless as this one turned out to be. That's not a good precedent to set when you are running in a neck-and-neck race for congress. The silly thing here is that none of it needed to happen. You never pretend your press conference is a significantly bigger deal than it really is; you'll still get some press coverage, and that will be good enough. You have to save that "blockbuster" bullet for when you really need it. But if O'Donnell's crew was going to go ahead with this ridiculous event, they at least could have come armed with some facts. If you don't, reporters make fun of you:
He also said, three times in a two-minute span, that Perlmutter was not just a lawyer and not just a 17th Street lawyer and not just a bankruptcy lawyer and not just a corporate lawyer, but that he was a special-interest-driven partisan politician lawyer, who might have had conflicts of interest when he was a state senator - but that O'Donnell really didn't know; he just thought somebody should ask.
It's called free media because it doesn't cost any money, but that doesn't mean it's easy to get. And while the good free media can be very beneficial to your campaign, the bad kind can be so much worse. There's no reason to go looking for the bad kind, but you'll find it if you try to fool the press.