Press secretaries now operate as if they’re “one tweet away from being fired” and that could hinder their relationship with campaign reporters.
That relationship has been deteriorating in recent years as social media striped the press of its gatekeeper role and exchanges between journalists and operatives shifted to impersonal, online channels. But campaigns still need to have a connection with the reporters covering them, operatives said at C&E’s Art of Political Campaigning Conference in Washington.
“I think the press still plays an important role as referee,” said Caitlin Legacki, of Precision Strategies.
Andrea Bozek, communications director for the NRSC, said getting press coverage early in a race can lay the foundation for an advertising blitz later in the cycle. “We use these stories to be third-party validators for TV ads to really magnify our message on TV and other social media,” she said.
Using national reporters to cover a race is also a good way to get local coverage, Bozek added.
In a media environment where local political coverage is shrinking, “we do have to use the Beltway reporters to start the story,” she said. “Then we can send that out into the state and sort of guilt [local reporters] into doing a story on what that topic is.”
Legacki agreed. “The smart candidates prioritize the local reporters but the D.C. media environment is so forceful in terms of shaping narratives and driving fundraising that it’s impossible to ignore,” she said.
Meanwhile, both press operatives admitted that younger staffers in their field are “terrified” of being fired. Legacki said press operatives often get steamed when they see “glib commentary” about their side posted on Twitter by a reporter. “It’s so easy to fire off a hot tweet in response, but we have to keep in mind we’re one tweet away from being fired,” she said. “I’ve been the terrified press staffer. It is harder to build relationships with reporters now because so much of the interaction happens over Twitter or email.”
Operatives do have a reason to be increasingly cautious, Bozek said. They’ve seen how off-the-cuff comments like, say, Mitt Romney’s “47 percent” remark from 2012 can derail a political career. Now, Bozek noted that young press secretaries’ social media profiles are screened as part of the hiring process. “We really have to vet their Twitter profiles,” she said. “Take a look at their Facebook, their Twitter [to make sure] they haven’t said anything controversial on those mediums that’s going to become a story for their boss.”
Still, she said operatives need to be comfortable engaging with reporters. “You have to take a risk sometimes and say what you think,” she said. “But at the end of the day, it’s not my job to get my name in the paper. It’s my job to make sure our candidates are saying the right things.”
For reporters covering campaigns, it’s increasing hard to get basic information about things like the candidate’s schedule, according to Lynn Sweet, a columnist for Chicago Sun-Times. “They don’t do much campaigning now. It used to be that candidates had full schedules.”
That’s down to candidates having less time available to campaign, said Legacki, “because of fundraising. That leads to a lot more scripting and choreographing of what those events look like.”
That attempt at control can be counterproductive, warned Josh Kraushaar, political editor for National Journal
“Voters want improvisation,” he said. “It explains, in part, the phenomenon of Donald Trump.”
One thing that candidates like Trump have learned is that reporters need something to write about, according to Bob Cusack, editor of The Hill.
“Some politicians just don’t get that and if they completely dodge all questions in an interview we’re going to find a more interesting story,” said Cusack. “You have to feed the beast.”