A Warning for the Political Class
A fellow asked me the other day if I ever planned to get back in the political world. A couple of years ago I spent election season working for a variety of campaigns from the county to the U.S. Senate level. I made phone calls, went door-to-door, wrote commercials, raised money and offered media guidance. I very much enjoyed the experience, for the most part. I mention the qualifier because many of the people I worked with and for aren’t accustomed to taking advice. These are alpha personalities and they’re used to leading and being in front. Call it the Daniel Snyder Effect. Snyder owns the Washington Redskins and is an extremely successful entrepreneur and made billions while still young. Then he bought one of the most valuable and storied franchises in professional sports. What could go wrong? He has the Midas touch. How difficult can football be compared to the rough-and-tumble world of business?
Apparently very difficult. The Redskins have been for more than 20 years an enigma. Well-funded but generally underperforming. Daniel Snyder reminds me a great deal of political animals I’ve known.
We’re dealing with a culture where politics and politicians have been spoofed for decades. Saturday Night Live has been on-air for more than 40 years and I was in my twenties when the Simpson’s debuted as a weekly half-hour show. I’ll be 54 before Election Day this year. Family Guy and South Park have been airing for almost twenty years. All of these shows portray politicians in a less than flattering manner. Double talkers, womanizers, drunkards, greedy, dimwitted and without any remaining scruples and, yet. Many people I’ve met in politics not only are wearing Snyder’s rose colored glasses but have a Ferdinand Marcos gene. Those of you over 45 may recall as his government collapsed he continued telling reporters, “The people love me!” The Philippine President was slightly out-of-touch.
In the area of media relations there have been great changes. I worked with candidates who in some cases cut their teeth when politicians were still local celebrities and came down from time-to-time from Mt. Olympus to grace media with the presence of an oracle. Over the last 15 to 25 years even small town media has become corporate and consultant driven. Not always a positive but it has professionalized the product in places where polish was lacking. Candidates used to tell me they were going to drop by the radio station and they expected to get a few minutes on-air. I would explain it would be better if they called and scheduled at least 24 hours in advance. Often I was rebuffed. At times I warned candidates to avoid some media outlets. I would go to sleep with the promise my advice was taken and then in the morning turn on the radio and hear my candidate being mocked face-to-face on-air.
As Donald Trump is currently proving not all media appearances are victories. It’s strange as a show host now but when I was on the other side I cautioned incumbents to avoid debates, forums and joint media appearances. A well-known incumbent with even a rare moment of foot-in-mouth can scuttle re-election. Also I caution a friendly personality in media isn’t a friend and this notion we can convert some media into campaign auxiliaries is far-fetched. Reporters, anchors and show hosts aren’t paid by your campaigns. Their rent, mortgage and grocery payments aren’t coming from your campaign war chest. Some may be sympathetic to your cause but it isn’t wise to rely on the belief someone is in your corner. Long ago I used to endorse candidates while hosting talk shows. There were people who made my program a daily appointment but when I would meet many of them I’d usually discover my recommendation didn’t carry any heft.
It’s my hope my thoughts help everyone involved in the political transaction. I may like you and I may even vote for you but behind a microphone I’m welcoming to everyone. O.K., maybe not liberals but I think you get the point.