Obama and the media

Posted April 1st, 2013 in Government, Media Relations, Politics by Jeff Bentoff

This interesting article says President Barack Obama is managing the media in unprecedented ways. Do you agree? Or is it pretty common, maybe the new normal in the current era of self-publishing via YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, podcasts, blogs, you name it?




Campaign reporters allowing quote vetos

Posted July 21st, 2012 in Campaigns, Government, Media Relations, Television by Jeff Bentoff

The New York Times this week revealed an open secret in D.C. — national campaign reporters are now allowing political sources to approve or edit their interview quotes before potential publication. This is a new practice in political reporting that wasn’t widely known about until this article.

As a former print reporter and government spokesman, I’ve never seen media in Milwaukee agree to such ground rules. It’s always been a matter of sources speaking carefully or suffering the consequences.

No such post-interview editing agreement for TV news interviews takes place that I’m aware of. By definition, it wouldn’t even be possible for live interviews. Gaffs and out-of-context usage comes out of TV interviews routinely. But political operatives want power over interview quotes where they can get it to avoid an inadvertent word or sentence throwing their campaigns off message. And national print reporters must be agreeing because of a desperate need for the interviews. (Despite Bloomberg, The Washington Post, Reuters and The Times consenting to such approvals, AP doesn’t allow this practice, and The Times is reviewing its adherence.)

A second Times story this week points to an irony: While journalists don’t like having to allow sources to veto quotes, journalists also would prefer to veto their own TV soundbites appearing in political ads. In the last week, talking head pundits commenting on Mitt Romney’s tax non-disclosures found their televised opinions almost instantly appearing in political TV ads by both sides. Even retired NBC anchor Tom Brokaw hates finding himself in political ads. And there’s nothing he can do about it.

Trying to control an interview is an age-old game. At least for this campaign season, political sources and campaigns have the advantage.

Itching for a TV fight

Posted March 12th, 2012 in Communications, Government, Media Relations, Public Relations, Television by Jeff Bentoff

Milwaukee media consumers, especially local TV news viewers, may be more familiar with “instigative journalism” than “investigative journalism.”

As I wrote in a prior post, instigative journalism is the clever term comedian Jon Stewart coined for reporters prodding an official with someone else’s trash talk, hoping to gin up a fight.

Sure, Milwaukee sees its share of excellent investigative pieces. But like everywhere else, we sure have a lot of instigative pieces.

I was involved on the receiving side on many an instigative story over the last year when I served as Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele’s deputy chief of staff and handled his media relations. That’s because of Sheriff David Clarke Jr.’s incessant verbal attacks on Abele — and the media’s passion to try to get the two to verbally duke it out.

President Obama, like many a seasoned political pro, tends not to take this type of bait. Similarly Abele, a political newbie, didn’t either. What’s intriguing and amusing was how Abele’s non-combative responses were characterized — or mischaracterized.

Not to pick on a single station or report, because the practice of trying to goad officials into a fight is common locally and nationally, but here’s one example. You’ll see that Clarke takes a pile of verbal potshots at Abele. Abele calmly responds to a reporter, but with nothing even close to a personal return attack. Nonetheless, the piece leads off with the anchor declaring that Abele “fires back” and describes a “heated exchange.” Yet in reality, no fire, no heat. Unless you count the reporter adjectives.

Obviously media likes a juicy story, not a boring one. A fight between two big-name officials brings viewers and readers.


“Instigative” journalism

Posted March 8th, 2012 in Communications, Government, Media Relations, Public Relations, Television by Jeff Bentoff

We’ve all seen it, especially those of us in the media relations or politics fields. Now Jon Stewart has put a name to it: “Instigative journalism.”

As Steward explained the term in a piece this week on The Daily Show: “It’s like investigative journalism. Instead of investigating, they instigate. They prod the person at the podium with someone else’s trash talk to see if they gin up a fight.”

His segment, “A View to a Grill,” showed reporter after reporter at a news conference this week throwing charges from political opponents at President Obama and asking for his response — clearly hoping for a fight. Stewart suggested that reporters cap their questions with: “You gonna take that s***?” to ensure proper provocation.

This demonstrates just how much TV news loves conflict. Read about local “instigative journalism” here in Milwaukee in a future post.

Wisconsin senators in Illinois and Gov. Walker fight for TV time

In urging the 14 Wisconsin Democratic state senators to return from Illinois to the Badger State capitol, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker has said repeatedly they have to be “in the arena.” Whether the Wisconsin Dems in Illinois are in the Wisconsin political arena is a point of debate.

But are they staying in the Wisconsin media arena from outside the state border?

The Dems clearly have a structural disadvantage in staying in the local media eye, particularly in the all-important TV eye: They’re not in Madison as usual, where Wisconsin TV can easily cover them.

How’s the war for TV going?

For anyone not aware, the 14 Senate Democrats left Wisconsin one week ago to prevent a vote on Walker’s budget repair bill, which cuts state worker pay and benefits and eliminates most collective bargaining rights for most employees. The Senate Republican majority needs at least one Democrat to attend a floor session reach the quorum needed to allow a vote. By staying out of state, the Dems are stopping the Senate Republicans, who are in the majority, from passing the bill.

Republican Walker has taken full advantage of the Dems’ absence and his stature as governor, becoming a common face on TV and print in Wisconsin and nationally. He’s held numerous news conferences. He’s conducted many local and national one-on-one interviews, including a live session on ABC’s “Good Morning” with host George Stephanopoulus.

To keep his messages in the media, he held a live “Fireside Chat” (though without a lit fireplace) this week that pre-empted local evening news, receiving uninterrupted, unedited coverage without reporter questions on seemingly all Wisconsin news channels. Throughout his continuing media blitz, he’s appeared very comfortable on camera and stayed on message.

Highlighting the Dems’ distance from the capitol, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald this week held a conference call meeting with two of the absent senators. Media attended. The two senators’ name tags were visible at Fitzgerald’s table, but their seats were visibly empty. Their voices were heard on a speaker phone, but the visual of their voices through a speaker didn’t help them.

So how are the Dems doing, away from the Wisconsin media machine?

The Senate Dems put together an immediate live response to Walker’s fireside chat that was aired on TV (with some media Q&A) from their undisclosed location. In terms purely of the visuals, the Dems’ broadcast looked less polished, which is understandable given their location was the basement of a hotel. But they were on TV when they needed to be.

Sen. Mark Miller televised respone to Gov. Walker "fireside chat"

The media seems a bit fascinated by the Dems absence, which benefits the senators. Sure, the media uses words like “fled,” “skipped town,” “are on the lam” and similar jocular terms in describing the Dems’ relocation.

But the absent Dems have been interviewed by phone, with comments appearing on air and in print. They’ve allowed some TV and photographers into their “undisclosed location” – apparently an Illinois hotel – with footage and interviews showing up on air in places such as on Milwaukee’s ABC news affiliate (WISN) and on the CBC Evening News.

The coverage often makes them look under siege and thus creates sympathy. Today’s New York Times ran a front-page story entitled “Life on the run for Democrats in union fights” about them and Indiana state reps in a similar situation.

And despite their situation, they’ve managed to appear remotely on national TV — for example, Sen. Jon Erpenbach made satellite appearances on MSNBC’s “Rachel Maddow Show” and on the Colbert Report. The Colbert Report segment is an hilarious, must-see.

The Colbert Report Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Wisco Inferno – Jon Erpenbach
Colbert Report Full Episodes Political Humor & Satire Blog Video Archive

A main reason this story is a national story is the great visuals of large numbers of protesters. The protesters are colorful, articulate, passionate and carry clever signs. They return in huge numbers day after day after day. And these sorts of protests in the U.S. are, at least in this era, unique. (Early prediction – between the demonstrations in Cairo and Madison, Time Magazine will name “The Protester” as person of the year.)

I am a little surprised that, in this era of YouTube, the Dems haven’t compensated for their physical absence with easily accessible and effective online video tools. Web cams, Flip cameras, YouTube postings, Skype interviews – these are all part of how everyone from teenagers to national anchors communicates with each other these days. They would have allowed the Dems to provide video to  TV and directly to constituents via the web.

In media interviews, the Dems said they left for Illinois hastily, not even packing changes of clothes. So grabbing the webcam was probably far from their minds, assuming they use webcams.

Critics see another kind of lack of planning, this one by national unions, that cannot be explained by a need for a hasty exit from Wisconsin. Forbes contributor Rick Ungar, in a piece, “Public Employee Unions Failing Badly At Public Relations,” argues that unions nationally “had to know this was coming – and yet, they were completely unprepared.”

“In an era where the public is all too ready to blame state employees for what they perceive as feeding at the public trough – while those in the private sector are left to suffer the ravages of a deep recession – the union PR machine has been anything but effective,” Ungar wrote of the national labor movement.

Since the Wisconsin protests began, labor has been running TV and prints ads, keeping toe to toe with the ads supporting Walker. But could labor have avoided the situation in the first place by building a better case for unions over the last few years, as Ungar writes? What do you think?

(Literally) drawing audiences in with stories

Posted January 18th, 2011 in Communications, Government, Media Relations, Public Relations, Uncategorized by Jeff Bentoff

Putting messages in the form of stories helps break through the clutter and reaches into audience hearts and minds in ways that recitation of facts can’t. Normally, communicators tell stories in writing, speeches, interviews or videos – all effective methods.

But via cartoons?

That’s the method that award winning cartoonist Lynda Barry employed to tell stories of real people to the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin – via official testimony in a case on windmills.

Barry, who lives in southern rural Wisconsin, believes that the noise and light flickering from windmills poses health threats to nearby residents. She’s created a website about the issue and has received publicity for her fight.

To make her case in the PSC case, she took the unprecedented step of testifying via cartoon.

Barry’s cartoon succeeds by telling the story of real people. It’s also as unique a form of storytelling as any that you’ll see in this age of digital everything. As with everything Barry does, this is a creative work of art and worth checking out.

As far as I know, Barry didn’t seek or receive publicity for the toony testimony. Had media known about her cartoon testimony, the inherent novelty (the “new” in the word “news”) of her approach would have made this newsworthy. Barry is fighting the perception of being a NIMBY (“not in my backyard”) opponent. The term NIMBY effectively castigates opponents in the public’s eye. Positive publicity for her cartoon could have helped even the scales and attracted more public attention and support to her side of the issue.

(Hat tip to former-Journal Sentinel reporter Gretchen Schuldt who wrote about PSC cartoon on her blog.)

One Reason Scott Walker Was Elected Governor

Posted December 9th, 2010 in Campaigns, Communications, Government, Media Relations, Public Relations by Jeff Bentoff

Strong media skills often sit high atop the list of why a political candidate succeeds. I was reminded of that watching Governor-Elect Scott Walker’s masterful performance as guest speaker at a Milwaukee Press Club luncheon this week.

The room was packed, sold out, with every media organization in town crammed in the tiny space, with a panel of three solid journalists and a sharp audience pitching him questions.

Yet in the face of this media scrum, Walker exhibited preparation, confidence, a human touch, a plan to make news, non-defensiveness about the questions and clear, repeated but natural delivery of messages.

Later, I had no problem recalling his two key messages. First, he said he’ll solve the budget deficit while pursuing all options – except by raising taxes. Second, his priorities once in office will be helping Wisconsin companies create jobs and trying to attract companies outside the state to Wisconsin to create jobs. He also made it clear by repetition what the news story would be from the event – that state union workers were going to help solve the budget crisis by some sort of cutbacks.

Whether you agree with his positions or not, he got them across to the media, and the public.

During the event, I didn’t see what some new to power (or in this case, higher office) often show the media once they get there – hubris, arrogance, ego, annoyance, impatience, prickliness, unpreparedness, anger. Such attitudes turn media against you.

Scott Walker just won a campaign by a reasonable margin, yet a few weeks later, he’s acting as if he’s still campaigning, at least with his media discipline. Whether he’s focused on media at all times, or whether he actually is campaigning for higher office, I can’t say.

While over the years, I’ve seen Walker speak and talked with him, I’d never observed him in a media event before this one. So after the luncheon, I checked with one of the panelists, ace Journal Sentinel reporter Lee Bergquist, a former colleague at the Milwaukee Sentinel, to see if my instincts were right about Walker being so good with media. Berquist, who covered the recent gubernatorial election, said they were.

“He’s a master communicator,” Bergquist answered, without hesitation.

“He’s very good at communicating. He’s great to work with, even in an adversarial relationship, between a reporter and a politician, because he knows what you need.”

Bergquist agreed that Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, Walker’s gubernatorial opponent, also was effective with media. “Walker just really excels,” Bergquist said.

Bergquist reminded me of a Q&A he conducted with Walker during the campaign that shows Walker’s interest in communications:

Q. If you weren’t in politics, what would you like to do?

A. Ride my Harley all day. My wife and I have talked about it and I don’t know what I would do. Maybe something in communications. Maybe I would host a radio or TV show.

Walker’s media skills didn’t make or break the election, but they sure didn’t hurt. It’s too soon to say how his skills will serve him as governor, when he’ll face more media pressure than ever, but I wouldn’t bet against them.


In 2012, two years after I wrote the above blog post, I had the opportunity to write an article for Delta airline’s “Sky” magazine on Wisconsin’s economy. Gov. Walker was among the many people I interviewed. Seeing him as a reporter for the first time, I agree with Lee Bergquist’s assessment above. Walker was one of the best interviews I conducted for the story if not the best. When we spoke on the phone, he was friendly, engaged, prepared and very quotable. Made my job easy.