Good Campaigns Have Always Told Their Own Stories

(In the off-season year of 1995, the editor of Campaigns & Elections Magazine asked me to write a brief story about the use of press releases by campaigns. Both as a media consultant and earlier as a congressional staffer, I had used my experience as a reporter to guide clients and organizations into helping themselves by helping reporters and editors do their jobs and sometimes doing the job for them. It wasn’t a new tactic: providing free branded materials to newspapers was common from recipes to right-wing advocacy. It wasn’t brand journalism, it was pure selling; an unabashed effort by organizations on either side of The Wall to have their needs met without openly compromising their roles. In bold below is one of the ways the arrangement worked in the business of campaigns.)

Most reporters say the value of a press release has gone up in recent times thanks to the advent of newsroom recycling. But your release can get to the box marked “in” before it goes to the one marked “bin” if it shows that you know your message and your media.

Trashing an ambitious politician is a cherished rite in the news business and showering reporters with too much paper is a surefire way to be called before the bar and grill after hours.One of the most satisfying columns I ever read was a piece about our opponent’s releases being used as scratch paper by the columnist’s toddler. A lot of the complaining may be due to the curly nature of fax paper, but in an age when satellite coverage and online services reach further and further down the journalistic food chain, the press release can seem less relevant all the time.

But like it or not, reporters and the people who assign them rely on releases and quickly grade campaigns by the quality of the information the campaign puts out.

Good reporters will never follow your roadmap all the way, but establish your credibility early and the press will work with you, not around you, up to the end. To keep your campaign’s releases in play, make them essential to the story you want to see. Start by making sure the press people are an essential part of the campaign team, with access to the candidate and the other senior staffers at all times and knowledge of the polling, paid media and mail strategies.

The best press release drives your message by making it easier for reporters, editors and news directors to do their jobs. The clock is unforgiving to them and you always get credit for helping them beat it.

Take a hypothetical campaign event; the endorsement of Candidate Jones by the Friends of Law Enforcement. Although much of the work a campaign does to lure media around an event involves the phone, especially in making sure that the right paper has gotten into the right hands at the right time, start by concentrating on the paper itself.

First, the schedule. Most of the coverage that a campaign gets is driven by what the candidate does in person. At least a week ahead of time, the campaign should get a schedule to all press. At the same time, a brief news story written by the campaign goes to the weeklies in the area of the event with a lede about the substance of the event, a quote from the candidate and the particulars of the schedule. Likewise, the radio stations should get an item for their broadcast calendar and an audio feed.

Next, the television stations, preferably the news director and a named reporter at each, should get a release that plays up the visual elements of the event, an approximate script and its expected running time. Sounds like spoon-feeding and it is. But keep in mind, of the three questions that decide TV coverage of an event, “What does it look like” and “Can we get it on the air in time” are numbers one and two. Number three is “What’s the issue here.” Your release can answer all three, in order of importance. With the tightest deadlines, the shortest stories and the toughest competition in all of newsdom, television doesn’t care what Jones position is on habeas corpus until the reporter wraps a story around your event on the scene or back at the station.

At the event, distribute a one-page release that ties the event into your message in the first two grafs. Don’t be shy: “Joining the ranks of thousands of law enforcement officers across the state who have endorsed Candidate Jones, the Friends of Law Enforcement said today said Jones is the “clear choice” on Nov. 6.” Reporters on the scene won’t use that lede, but those words and facts behind them will be sitting next to the word processor when the stories are typed. Make sure the release has the names and titles of all the principals with any pertinent background about the site. Is Candidate Jones making a speech? Have an advanced text available and highlight the key sections for television and radio reporters.

Don’t forget to report the event yourself. Write down the important quotes about Jones and prepare your own story to send to weeklies and dailies that don’t show. This is a two pager, complete with headline, lede, quotes and background. Designed as a cut-from-the-bottom wire story, this kind of release often makes it into a weekly untouched and sometimes gets printed as a filler or rewritten and as a campaign brief in the dailies. If you can afford it, a photographer should shoot the event, and the pictures – developed at the local one-hour shop – should be delivered to papers with your cutline taped to the back.

The greatest danger with press releases is still overuse, especially if you rely on them to carry your message alone, without events, access to the candidate and regular personal contact with the press.

In that same campaign where our opponent overseeded the Fourth Estate with paper, the opposing campaign manager – call him Smith – frequently used caustic, personal quotes against our candidate. After several of these, we sensed the fatigue of the press and wrote a one-line release quoting our press secretary: “Sounds like Smith has bitten through his leash again.” It was picked up across the state. Our opponent may have kept up his release barrage, but we never heard it reported again.

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