The Fastest Way to a Politician’s Heart is Through a Camera Lens

press and politiciansIf politics were for wallflowers, government buildings would look like bungalows and politicians wouldn’t need to give speeches.  So for the sake of simplicity let’s start from an understanding that politicians expect to be seen and heard.  They would like it to happen at their convenience and on their issues, but they will adopt an issue if you capture their attention, if they can make it serve their needs and if they think it will have resonance with the public.  This description may make them sound opportunistic, but keep in mind that as public figures, they need to be, well public.  If you never hear from or see your legislator again after you elect them, then you might begin to wonder what if anything they were doing for you.  Also keep mind that a representative in parliament who can’t seize an opportunity when one is presented isn’t going to do you a lot of good in the long run.

What this preference for press means for you and your issue is that you have to think of ways of making it sexy or at least ensuring that elements of it have broad appeal.  While working in the public interest is a great starting point, it doesn’t necessarily capture headlines much less passing media interest.  The media likes conflict, sex appeal, violence and sensation, or more to the point, the assumption is that consumers of media like those things.  If you’re lucky on a slow Friday in the summer, you might get them to pay attention to human interest stories. Again, this isn’t a commentary on the personal peccadilloes of reporters, but a reflection of the corporate demands that now plague journalism and what you and I as a members of the public have indicated we are willing to pay for. This is what bumps online ratings, sells papers and raises television audience numbers.

So how do you make your news and issuesissue interesting?

As a start test its appeal with family and friends.  Do people start to glaze over when you tell your story?  Do they get angry, do they laugh, sympathize?  Do they appear shocked? If you can get a reaction from them that isn’t bored indifference you’re on the right track.  If your audience is glazing over halfway through your story, then you might want to take a slightly different approach to telling it.  For instance, you can take your issue and consider the worst-case scenario.  What could possibly happen if nothing is done? What are the implications of leaving things at the status quo?  Don’t stretch the bounds of believability, but try to follow through on what might happen if things did not change.  Stir in a few experts. Consider the plight of those impacted and suddenly you have a news story.  It also helps if you can think of a catchy way to express your concerns. The catchier, the more likely it is to end up as a sound bite on the news.  This may seem crass, but it works.

Then of course there is social media. There are volumes written on the many ways you can generate attention on your issue by blending traditional and social media campaigns or simply taking the social media route.  I would say though that unless you already have a strong online following or are about to start an active campaign to get that following, then you will want to look at blending. Although it can sometimes seem that anything can be made popular online from screaming goats to funny dances, it’s harder to do than it looks.  It’s also true that not all coverage is necessarily good coverage.

Timing is also critical to the successful launch of a story.

Any number of things can obliterate a good story, from bad weather conditions to a single but memorable violent act. A sporting event that has captured the attention of the public can make your story go from leading to pleading for coverage. You can manage some things, like avoid launching a story around an important holiday unless you can tie your story to it. Elections are tempting times to launch stories too, but do it with care.  If you cost a party a drop in the polls or even a temporary setback during an election campaign, they will remember you and it won’t be fondly. Take a look at the local events calendar, not just to avoid conflicting activities but to look for opportunities.

Whatever approach you adopt remember, media is a blunt tool.

There is little purpose in using the media strictly as a way of getting a legislator’s attention.  If you use it, it must be with the understanding that you are trying to get a message out to a broad audience, including those who may disagree with your perspective.

Do you have any media success or failure stories? Any news you saw that you knew wasn’t true or received a revelation by watching the news? I’d love to hear your stories.


0 responses to “The Fastest Way to a Politician’s Heart is Through a Camera Lens

  • Janet MacLeod says:
    April 9, 2013 @ 12:28 pm

    This is sooooo valuable and so relevant! Thank you Debra! (Best blog ever! Going to tweet the link!)

  • Laurel says:
    April 9, 2013 @ 12:29 pm

    Great article on how best to use the media to your advantage. I can share a short failure story with you: an NGO who had good ties with the government in the mid 90’s asked two MPs to be interviewed as these elected representatives were already big supporters of their cause. However, the not-so-seasoned reporter introduced the 2 MPs as the “Maverick” and the “Renegade” which did not resonate well with the MPs themselves, nor their party. While the intention was to bring focus on the mission and government support of this NGO, much unwanted attention and scrutiny was directed towards the 2 MPs who were now thrust into the hot seat. The NGO was barely remembered, the reporter was scolded (then later avoided) and the MPs were in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons in the public and within their own party.

    • I have to admit, started laughing at the introduction the reporter gave the MPs – great way to alienate them from their own caucus and cause their colleagues to wonder if they were trustworthy. I’ll bet it didn’t resonate with them. 🙂

  • I love your blog, you give such great advice! I’m not in the business field but I do test out a lot of ideas on family first before writing about them. Mostly my sister and husband…they are usually my most honest feedback.

  • JustOneBoomer (Suzanne) says:
    April 9, 2013 @ 03:11 pm

    Here in the U.S., politicians try to keep control of their media images, but not always successfully. They also are increasingly using their own social media—like live tweeting during the President’s State of the Union speech—-kind of rude, IMO.

    • Its the same here. They tweet and post on a regular basis and also get in trouble for it. If you can provide them with a story to tweet about, or better yet, get them on the evening news in a way that is NOT embarrassing, then you both win.

  • Good article Debra. Personally have mainly worked with top leaders of government all over the world. What you write applies to them but the catch is they don’t have time for the press. They would love to but they smply don’t have the time.

    Thabo Mbeki, for instance, used to tell me to come and visit him in Pretoria. But when I was thinking of going the Reverend Chicane told me there is no way we can fit you in. He cannot tell Tony Blair he hasn’t got time to see him:-)

    Having said that I have met and interviewed many top leaders.

    • Thanks Caterina. I agree, its not going to work for the guys at the top. This is an approach directed at local legislators, the guys who are eager for profile. If you want the top guns, it generally takes a big event. If your organization is hosting a conference that typically gets lots of attendees then you are better off inviting the top leaders to speak at it. I’ve done this quite a few times at the Minister level and it works like a charm, but again, the event has to offer significant profile and have a good fit with the politician’s portfolio. Another route is to host a joint press conference with other similarly minded organizations and invite the politician to join you. This has worked but I have also seen the press conference get delayed multiple times because as Caterina points out, other issues come along and take priority.

  • Good article.

    Making your subject interesting is what we all need. lol. I had never even considered this approach and will have to give it some thought for the future. Again, a great article.

    • Thanks Dan and you’re not alone. I remember the first time I worked with a researcher and asked her why politicians would care enough about her research to invest in it. She looked at me in complete dismay and after a few moments of awkwardly staring at each other she said to me, “Its fascinating and interesting work in and of itself.” We played the “Why?” game for quite a while before I finally got to information I could use in my advocacy for her research.

  • It is kind of sad that important issues are handled based on how “newsworthy” they are. This reminds me of how President Roosevelts election and presidency was handled. He was elected before television was widely used. All his photo shoots showed him from the waiste up. The fact that he was bound to a wheel chair was hidden from the public eye even after his election. It is entirely possible that he would never have been elected in today’s world.

    During his time as president, he led the US out of the Great Depression. He also commanded US Forces in Germany during World War 2. All while in a wheel chair.

    • I agree. In many respects we’ve allowed infotainment to replace real news, which means that real issues have to work harder to be heard. Your Roosevelt example says that we’ve been working at managing public expectations for a long time. The challenge isn’t to the news reporters, though they have a role to play, the challenge is to the rest of us to decide what we want to see and hear. They won’t air it if we won’t watch it.

  • How to drum up interest in a sea of voices all screaming at once for attention is a taxing task, and one I’ve only started to grasp. Thanks for the helpful post.

    • It is a bit like rowing upstream, but its definitely doable. I’ve seem some really innovative approaches over the years and I think its really a question doing the research and using imagination. One of the hardest parts is having patience.

  • I agree. Especially with the idea that timing is essential. You have to make sure that people are interested and invested in the story you’re putting out or else it will get no attention and your efforts would have been for nothing.

    • I’ve seen media coverage of an event get derailed because a local university game coincided with the event. I never underestimate what can distract, having said that, as Jeanette points out, if reporters think something is worth covering, they will face incredible challenges to get their story.

  • The press will battle through wind and hail if they really want to cover a story. I know that from personal experience when many years ago I organized a press conference to announce free lunches for underserved children in Harlem during the summer. It was almost a typhoon — nobody including the speakers go there until about a half hour before the scheduled start. But slowly we all arrived, drenched and bedraggled and — guess what — the press corps was right behind us. Never saw so many cameras and news writers. That was a lesson learned.

  • Great post Debra. No matter who you are writing for it’s important to make your make your “story” as enticing as possible. Obviously there are different ways to do this depending on your audience, but it is something to always keep in mind.

  • I think that a lot of politicians simply say what they need to in order to get elected and avoid saying any more. I’m not a big fan of watching the news because anytime I see them ask a politician a question they just dance around it and try not to say anything that will draw people away from them, instead of what they should do is to say what they truly believe.

    • There are definitely politicians who play it safe to the point of being ineffectual, but I’ve met too many hard working politicians to paint them all or even most of them with that brush. What I do see is that too many of them stick to the old school media management approach that has them stick to their lines or restate them in multiple ways. Its obvious, it looks evasive and there are so many resources available to the public to get more information that its also pointless. What I find even more frustrating is that it causes the public to disengage and if we’re all looking the other way, who’s keeping an eye on the shop?

  • I really agree that a topic should be ran through “friendly” objections first like family an friends. The one thing I worry about is, are they just being nice? As Jon said it is so sad when topics are subjected to popularity and media coverage.

    • Good question Susan. If your going to run things by friends and family you really have to give them context so they know why your asking, but also a free pass. If my husband thinks I’m going to get angry if he says something I don’t like, then he’s not going to be honest.

  • So much of this advice can be used personally too – it’s amazing!

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