A reporter writes a story with a slant that you, the PR guy, don’t like. It’s not factually wrong but leaves an unfavorable impression of your client. Maybe it suggests your client is not well positioned or has an ineffective message to the market. What do you do? The same thing the GOP does.
It fires off electronic rebuttals when it has a beef with news stories, broadcasts or statements by its critics, shooting its retorts directly into reporters’ e-mail inboxes and posting them on the Internet.
… Nearly half of the 32 issued so far were released in November 2005 and May of this year, two months when Bush’s job approval numbers plummeted. Ten of the 32 were leveled against Democrats on Capitol Hill. Twenty took issue with newspaper, magazine or broadcast reports on subjects ranging from climate change to tax cuts to prewar intelligence on weapons of mass destruction.
…Democrats dismiss the aggressive tactic, and say it suggests the Bush White House is on the defense, fighting an uphill battle over ratings.
“They’re attacking everybody — the media, the Democrats, government auditors, nonpartisan interest groups,” said Phil Singer, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and the person who provided the party’s rapid response to the GOP during the 2004 presidential race.
“It’s as though they are the sole arbitrators of the truth. This is yet another step of the politicization of the White House. It’s less a bastion of policymaking and more of a traditional permanent campaign,” Singer said.
… Democratic strategist Stephanie Cutter [said], “Unfortunately, facts are troublesome things, and refuting things on paper is not going to go very far,” she said. “People are living through the reality of this administration, and a piece of paper is not going to clear it up.”
It’s bad enough that local and state Democrats might not have any coordinated ongoing plan to shape the stories, but that national Dems “dismiss” this type of media relations is sad. Developing a message and a strategy to deliver is an approach to media relations that seems incapable of incubating in the Democratic Petri dish.
The news here isn’t how the Bush administration gets its story out, without regards to the facts. The news is that the Dems dismiss such aggressive media relations. They should be emulating it. If anything, I’m shocked that the GOP has issued only 32 of these rebuttals.
Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, disagrees that the “Setting the Record Straight” memos are just part of a Republican attempt to spin public opinion in their favor. This is increasingly going to be the way that presidential administrations — both Republican and Democrat — communicate, she said.
“The Internet facilitates it,” she said. “Why wouldn’t you post your side of things?”
She said the memos run parallel to Rush Limbaugh’s conservative talk radio show. “Limbaugh will systematically take on a reporter he thinks is unfair to George Bush, or unfair to Bush’s perspective,” Jamieson said.
The administration is hoping the targeted reporter will feel scolded and adapt in a way that pleases the White House and get other reporters to self-censor their stories and broadcasts to avoid being singled out.
“If it accomplishes that, and nothing else, that’s a very powerful effect,” Jamieson said.
Certainly, the Clinton campaign machine understood this, and the Democrats apparently were aggressive in responding during the ’04 campaign. Why not now?
“The primary purpose is that un-rebutted charges on important issues sometimes become viewed as fact,” said Dan Bartlett, who is counselor to the president and oversees the White House communications operation.
Even if attempts are made to fix mistakes, corrections published in newspapers or broadcast on TV aren’t always seen, Bartlett said. It’s essential, especially in today’s era of Internet chat rooms and 24-hour news, that the White House issue its rebuttal as soon as possible, he said.
“If it’s a day late, it’s not very useful,” he said.
Reporters aren’t hard-bitten and chain-smoking with a rakishly worn fedora. They’re not really outside the social milieu of politicians anymore but are regular guests at social events that attract top politicians. That doesn’t mean they tow the administration’s line. Rather, they don’t want to be wrong or even necessarily right if they’re right out on a limb. There’s a reason for the term “pack journalism.” But unless they’ve got a solid scoop, they’ll opt for balance, which usually means regurgitating each side’s line. So all the administration is doing is getting out their side of the story and not letting the other’s side’s spin or the pack’s interpretation become fact.
More important, how many times do we hear the Dem trying to react rather than getting their own line out? Not until the past week. The Lamont victory gave the Dems a little courage. But even after that victory, Dems seemed overwhelmed by the GOP message machine. In comments on a My DD blog entry a few days back,
Progressives aren’t getting booking calls. When the media search for Democrats to talk, they grab a Lieberman or a Biden on the one hand to make Dems look like Republicans minus conviction, or they get someone like Rangel who they know will get riled up and be a character but probably (and unfairly) get judged on personality, not substance.
Can it be changed? Maybe. But are these news outlets, who apparently have a vested interest in resisting grassroots progressivism, really inclined to give a legitimate soapbox to an eloquent progressive voice?
And on the party blog
[T]he hateful right owns the airs waves right now. We will never gain strength if we don’t control talk radio (for one example). I have been in contact with several of the station managers in northern Indiana for over a year and they all tell me the same thing – we have nothing to say that the people of this area want to hear.
We need to put Democrats in power again and the first – the very first thing they need to do is bring back the “Fairness Act” – if a station runs a right winger program like Limpbaugh (sic) for 3 hours, then they have to run a liberal show for the same amount of time… same way with any religious programing (sic) like 700 Club – if it’s on a TV station for 3 hours, then they have to put on a liberal show for the same amount of time.
We need this so much right now becasue (sic) you’re right – we’re not being heard…
I think that is why I am frustrated as well.
Clear messages are not coming out of the DNC..these issues are complicated and we all know deserve more than a 30 second sound byte…. We need reasonable, measured arguments to support the passion we all feel but unfortunately with the limited attention span Americans have, we need those one-liner sound bytes to rebut the Bush machine.
We have to have an organized fight to get our voices heard. Let me give you more information about how our markets in northern Indiana are simplfied (sic) by our right leaning radio station managers. When I asked one, who by the way is a regular on the local WNDU channel 16 tv station, connected with Notre Dame, he told me that in most cases, they have a “gut” feeling as to who they have on their programing (sic). When I pressed him if he or the station used any of the pro-active rating services he said – “sometimes”. My question then is very simple.. how can you have a gut feeling for what the market will bear if you don’t offer another view point? If you don’t give the other side a chance in voicing an opposing view – how do you know what the public will want to listen to?
This is just a lot of whining and the all too typical call for government regulation. Some will argue that what the White House does is easier because of the tighter control it can exercise over communications. For the Democratic Party, it might be more difficult, but only because the party hasn’t developed and institutionalized such a practice, probably because you’d see the kind of infighting we’re not witnessing between Howard Dean and Rahm Emanuel.
And is there that kind of coordination and planning of message in Virginia, where a Democrat is the chief executive?