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.

How to get on page one of The New York Times

Posted June 11th, 2012 in Media Relations, Public Relations by Jeff Bentoff

This article explains.


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.

(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.

“Plenty o’ nuttin’”

Posted December 2nd, 2010 in Communications, Marketing, Media Relations, Music, Public Relations by Jeff Bentoff

Communicators often find there’s one obstacle that’s hardest to overcome.


We sometimes fall in love with the sound of our own voice, the words we choose, the cadence. And that can get in the way of the message and our communications judgment.

If you’re falling in love with what you’re saying, remember the words of that great philosopher, The Robot: “Danger, Will Robinson, danger!”

[Warning, warning: From the classic 1960s TV series, “Lost In Space.”]

Blogger Rob Parnell writes in a post called “Murder Your Darlings”:

As Elmore Leonard once said, “If I come across anything in my work that smacks of ‘good writing,’ I immediately strike it out.”

Finding the right words to communicate your message usually involves deleting, not adding. Think focus.

Two good examples come from new books about musicians – and the examples involve words, not notes.

In “Frank: The Voice,” author James Kaplan tells how in 1943, Frank Sinatra’s new publicist, George B. Evans, coined the moniker that helped define the great singer.

According to a New York Times review of Kaplan’s book, Evans didn’t like the wordy slogan Sinatra was known by at the time: “The Voice That Has Thrilled Millions.”

“Certain he could come up with something better, Evans closed his eyes and imagined what drove Sinatra’s fans in bobby socks into a frenzy and suddenly realized he didn’t have to add anything. “All he had to do was subtract. Frank was just … the Voice.”

Another example comes from a world of music far from Frank’s – the world of Rolling Stone Keith Richards and his highly acclaimed autobiography, “Life.”

Richards earned honor as co-writer of some of rock-‘n’-roll’s greatest and most legendary songs. James Fox, a journalist who collaborated with Richards on the autobiography, found the guitar slinger and tunesmith to be a talented editor, according to Janet Maslin of the New York Times.

Maslin quoted Fox:

“What I couldn’t guess was that he’d be such a very good natural editor,” Mr. Fox, reached by e-mail, says of Mr. Richards. “He cut, accordingly, for pace and rhythm — a real musical cut. As for calling the book “Life,” Mr. Richards did some editing there too. “My Life” was what the book was to be called. “I said ‘I tell you what, just cut off the ‘My,’ and you’ve got a title,” he says. He might just as appropriately have used another title he likes, “Keep It Dark.” But, he says, “I’m saving it for a song.”

Actually, it’s not surprising that Richards is a smart editor. Rock-‘n’-roll and the Stones are about directness, if nothing else. And in rock-‘n’-roll, directness communicates.

One way to sum this all up – in song, of course – comes from ol’ blue eyes himself.

This song isn’t about editing, but it kinda fits. Enjoy.

Why media feasted on possible Thanksgiving Day airport protests

Posted November 30th, 2010 in Media Relations, Music, Public Relations, Social Media by Jeff Bentoff

You might have heard, air travelers upset with new TSA body scanners were waging an “Internet campaign” for an “opt out” protest that would cause havoc at airports during the busy Thanksgiving weekend.

When I said “might” have heard, I meant – “you couldn’t avoid this story.” As CNN’s “Reliable Sources” host Howard Kurtz said on his show this week, “Every hour that I turn on cable news, I see this story, even if nothing new has happened in the past 24 or 48 hours…Does it deserve to be on television every hour, and then repeatedly lead the network evening news and the network morning shows?”

Bruce Plante, Tulsa World

Why the insatiable media appetite for this story?

Columnist David Carr in The New York Times this week offered a list of reasons that media couldn’t resist this story: timing, execution, mystery, mistrust of government, relevance, nothing and everything, displacement, race and class, good visuals and gender. His column deserves a read as a reminder of what makes media tick sometimes.

Speaking on “Reliable Sources,” GQ columnist Ana Marie Cox put her finger more simply on the cause – it’s us. Answering Kurtz’s rhetorical question about whether Matt Drudge of the influential www.drudgereport.com had become “America’s assignment editor,” Cox said that in essence Drudge was giving us what we wanted:

Drudge is less America’s assignment editor than he is America’s id…He can plug into those exact fears and insecurities that people have, and then that’s what gets the (Internet) traffic, that’s what then gets these guys working on it.”

After all the media build up, why did this hyped Internet protest simply fizzle? Author Malcolm Gladwell, in a piece published before the airport campaign was announced called “Small Change: Why the revolution will not be tweeted,” explained what he sees as limitations of Internet organizing.

Gladwell wrote that social media wouldn’t have been enough for Martin Luther King in his battle against segregation in the South.

The things that King needed in Birmingham—discipline and strategy—were things that online social media cannot provide.

Gladwell makes a lot of good points. Is that why the protest failed, despite media and viewers gorging on the story? What do you think?

[On a side note of local musical interest, GQ columnist Cox, quoted above, recently wrote about a great Milwaukee band, Sat. Nite Duets. She linked to Milwaukee music blogger extraordinaire Ryan Matteson’s post on the band.]

McChrystal’s mouth, lack of media savvy, end career

Posted June 29th, 2010 in Media Relations, Public Relations by Jeff Bentoff

Think print is dead? It’s not healthy, but you can’t play taps for it just yet. Consider this: A former counterculture mag that’s evolved and is still kicking, Rolling Stone magazine, just caused the “resignation” and retirement of Gen. Stanley McChrystal.

What killed McChrystal’s career wasn’t actually Rolling Stone’s newsprint and ink. It was the general’s mouth – and his lack of understanding of media.

Like many a source, McChrystal grew a bit too comfortable with reporters around him (see New York Times’ Gail Collins funny column) and began to believe that they wouldn’t report his every word. As discussed on NPR’s “On The Media” this week, beat reporters typically don’t write everything they see and hear.

As a Milwaukee Sentinel reporter, I developed sources by looking the other way at times. I once wrote about a law enforcement unit conducting a planned drug raid after riding along with the officers. Before the raid, the officers, all plainclothes, met at a bar with me in tow. And they had a drink or two. While on duty. Just a few hours later, they raided a drug house, and ended up drawing weapons to save the life of an undercover officer inside.

Did I write the drinking part of the story? No. Did that help me win their trust in the future? Yes. That said, if the bust had gone bad, maybe I would have written about the drinking. Or if one of them had been in a DWI accident. Was it smart for them to take me to the bar and watch them drink on duty before an armed raid?

I recall being with an elected official I worked for who surprised me by telling a trusted reporter we ran into something, off-the-record, that was very juicy. Off-the-record. Well, not long after, another reporter, a friend of the first reporter, called me, saying she had heard from “a source” that this elected official had said such and such. Guess what? This second reporter wrote the story. It was a huge story. And the elected official had a big headache of a problem that lasted for months.

What McChrystal and others sometimes forget is that reporters have a job to do. Put something juicy in front of them, their job will be to try to get it into the media. Maybe not every time. But you never know.

Another interesting aspect of the Rolling Stone story is that the magazine initially gave excerpts of its story exclusively to AP and didn’t post the story online until the next day. This drove interest in their print edition. As columnist David Carr wrote today, it also drove Time magazine and the website Politico to run PDFs of the print story on their websites – until Rolling Stone demanded their removal.

So, reporting isn’t dead, and neither is print – not within the last few days, anyway.