One Last Time for Fred

I think this is the last time I will think about Fred Phelps for a long while. I’ve only written about him one time, back when the Supreme Court was considering restricting the access he and his followers had to picket funerals. I said yes, the Court said no. My point was the same as my favorite constitutional lawyer Walter Dellinger – picketing funerals is a deliberate attempt to incite violence, not a form of protected speech.

The families of the deceased agreed as well, most of them the loved ones of service members, though the Phelps crew picketed almost randomly; schools, Billy Graham appearances, the funerals of Bob Hope and Fred Rogers.

At funerals, it wasn’t just picketing. Imagine vicious interruptions of solemn services with chants of hatred against your Dad or brother or son or daughter, with your grandmother in tears. It was less an invitation to violence than a dare.

I had that perspective on Phelps and more. Continue reading

New Year’s Resolution for Advocates: Stop Complaining About the Lack of News Coverage

The old model of public relations involved hiring flaks and marketers to persuade print, TV and radio journalists to cover you. Hiring one set of gatekeepers to guide you through another made sense back in the day. In a three-channel TV town with two dailies, maybe 3-5 weeklies, several radio stations and a monster-sized market share of consumer eyes and ears, you needed all the help you could get.

They called those pieces of media by names that indicated the scarce resource they controlled. Print filled its newshole and display space, radio the quarter hours and television by daypart. And almost everyone paid attention.

And now…not so much. Continue reading

Twitter: A Whiff of Thanksgiving

If you are a public affairs or media shop advocating issues, promoting products or services, or the expertise of your clients or organizations, don’t Tweet until you’re ready. Twitter at its best is an invitation; a hand outstretched with the keys to the car, the trailer that primes your heart for the movie, a whiff of Thanksgiving in chilly air. It’s a hint of what’s available, even a promise of what you’ll find if you follow.

I click into a fresh take from individuals all the time; people who Tweet as I do – broad subjects from general interest reading and viewing. Rank and Ronin and all in between, it’s a spin for the joy of intellectual discovery the way Pandora or Spotify are with music.

But for organizations, different expectations. Continue reading

Standing by the Shrimp

I came to Capitol Hill as a staff member at a time of plenty. Honoraria – payments for speeches to trade associations at $2,000 per, free tickets to games and events, and shrimp. Lots of shrimp. Not in Forrest Gump variety, but in Brobdingnagian quantity.

I never filled my pockets with them as interns sometimes did, but I did stand by the shrimp, munching and weaving a circle around the mound.

I thought about this describing a large organization grown lazy and disconnected from its mission, giving competitors inroads to its clients and tying its staff up with internal navel-gazing and accountability for increasing layers of trivia. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

For GOP and Latinos; arithmetic, white men and ripped furniture

An AP story today on Fox News Latino is headlined Out of Reach for Romney Today, Minorities a Key to the GOP Future. The lede is blunt: “ The Republican party cannot expect to win future presidential elections by simply counting on non-Hispanic white voters. That’s the message from worried Republicans urging the party to deal with the dilemma head on.”

And the future looks bleak: “To understand the GOP quandary, consider the possibility of Texas and Florida — nearly a quarter of all Electoral College votes between them — becoming reliably Democratic.”

The article cites worries voiced recently, most prominently South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham’s sardonic observation that his party isn’t “generating enough angry white guys to stay in business for the long term” to offset its’ bleak prospects as judged by the last go-round: nine of 10 John McCain voters were white, compared to six of 10 Obama voters.

Republicans and some Hispanics say economic opportunity, free enterprise, etc. will lure Latino voters back, but immigration isn’t far from any diagnosis of the problem. Mindful of the harsh immigration policy and rhetorical gauntlet Romney joined during the GOP primary (remember “self deportation”?), Sen. Marco Rubio tells AP. “Immigration may not be the No. 1 issue in the Hispanic community, but it is a gateway issue. The way you talk about it matters.”

Maybe messaging can help, but some would argue that no Republican would emerge from a primary with anything less than Tea Party certification on “border security.” The GOP brand on the subject has given Democrats a virtual pass on discussing, much less describing, real immigration reform.

For Republicans, it’s a slow-motion car wreck. Today’s AP story mentioned Graham, but it reminded me of what my favorite GOP consultant/commentator Mike Murphy said on Meet the Press barely a month after President Obama’s inauguration in 2009.

Said Murphy, “At the end of the day here’s the one statistic we all got to remember:  the country’s changing.  Ronald Reagan won in 1980 with 51 percent of the vote.  We all worship Ronald Reagan.  But if that election had been held with the current demographics of America today, Ronald Reagan would’ve gotten 47 percent of the vote.

“The math is changing.  Anglo vote’s 74 percent now, not 89.  And if we don’t modernize conservatism, we’re going to have a party of 25 percent of the vote going to Limbaugh rallies, enjoying every, every applause line, ripping the furniture up.  We’re going to be in permanent minority status.”

With Earned Media Changes, Brand Journalism is Critical

I spent six years as a daily newspaper reporter covering cops and courts, city councils, legislatures in three states, Congress the White House and various crooks and scoundrels on the investigative beat. My parents met in a newsroom where, it was said, journalism was known as “the last refuge of the vaguely talented.”

I mourn the decline of newspapers, but I’m not bitter. As time passes, I’m less inclined to view reporting as some sort of calling and more as a skill with many applications, and one that is critical to organizations in the form of  brand journalism.

Political Scientist Daniel Hallin in his book The Uncensored War defined three “spheres” of journalism. The first is the Sphere of Consensus, where the topics include issues like genocide, slavery, and childhood obesity. In this sphere of topics, journalists are under no compunction to present differing points of view. They can take a side confident that their objectivity is intact.

The second sphere – that of “Legitimate Controversy,” is the journalists’ wheelhouse, where objectivity is the definition of the profession and those who want the title devote significant effort to balance. The third is called the Sphere of Deviance, where aliens, talking dogs and legitimate rape reside – the ridiculous and irrelevant, considered unworthy of legitimate attention.

Dallin’s key point is that the explosion of new media has not only fractured traditional coverage of events, it has changed the definition by certain journalists and audiences of all the spheres and greatly expanded that second sphere. What is “Legitimate Controversy” is in dispute. Continue reading