How Should Barack Obama Handle the Media?

On the heels of his successful campaign and historic election, Barack Obama would not appear to be a man in need of advice on dealing with the news media. Ever since he emerged on the national scene at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, he has enjoyed largely favorable, positive press coverage. In fact, his treatment by the news media was so flattering and so complimentary that his rivals in the primary and general elections frequently voiced complaints. Nevertheless, the dynamics are likely to change. As the nation’s 44th president, Obama will be judged by how he governs, instead of how he performs on the campaign trail.

During my career, I have had the opportunity to offer media advice to several individuals making the transition from candidate to officeholder, albeit at the state and local levels. But if Barack Obama were to seek my advice, here are ten recommendations I would offer to guide his media operations:

1. The best thing you can do to garner positive press is to run your administration well. Legendary Chicago Mayor Richard Daley once said that good government is good politics. But good government also is good press. When things were going well during the primary and election campaigns, good press followed.  Running an effective and efficient administration may not automatically generate good press, but the converse certainly is true. An Administration that makes mistakes, raises ethical and legal questions and creates controversy is likely to be an Administration with bad press.

2. Make sure your administration speaks with one voice. One of the difficulties involved with moving up to higher office is learning to control the many agencies and workers that come with the new job.  Suddenly, there are people with important responsibilities whom you may not know well – or at all.  Also, you no longer are in a situation in which the entire team is focused on getting you elected.  There will be people with their own agendas and priorities – and they may not always be consistent with yours.

3. Respect the press.  Never forget that reporters are professionals with a job to do, even if that means asking questions and raising issues you would rather not address. Do not take it personally or hold grudges.  Avoid governing as if the press is out to get you. Stick to your agenda and stay on message.  That is how you got to the Oval Office and that is how you can succeed there.

4. Be open, accessible and honest.  Almost every public official makes these promises, but few keep them.  A policy of true transparency will go a long way toward building and maintaining a good working relationship with the press.

5. Apply the adage “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer” to your media policies.  Do not limit your interviews to news organizations that tend to agree with your ideology.  If you want to win over those who have not supported you in the past, you need to make your case in the newspapers, websites and television stations they rely upon for news.

6. Remain aware of the changing media landscape. Today, we get our news and information from a wide variety of sources – and many of them are not traditional news entities. During the campaign, the Obama team was adept at bypassing the traditional media and going directly to the people through email, YouTube and even online video games. Continued use of new media will pay dividends in the today’s tech-savvy world.

7. Make reporters’ jobs easier.  Know their deadlines and when it is best to issue a news release or hold a news conference. Remember that if you leak a story to one news organization, you are likely to make enemies with its competitors.  Anticipate what reporters will need so you can have answers and information ready to help them meet deadlines.

8. Continue to make good use of “soft news”. Stories about Michelle, the kids, the search for a family dog, and moving your mother-in-law into the White House all help to create a warm and authentic feeling about the nation’s chief executive, something that has been missing for quite a while.

9. Conversely, remember that using your family to score political points works two ways. They are now fair game for the press, so do not cry foul if the media starts asking questions about your family members and their activities.

10. Keep the press busy with a full schedule of news conferences and public events. The press needs a steady flow of news.  The more news the Obama Administration creates, the less time reporters have to dig up dirt and produce negative stories.

One final thought based upon my years of work on the communication staffs of several public officials:

Above all, listen to the advice of your own press staff.  Your staffers may not always have all of the answers, but public officials have gotten themselves into a myriad of problems that could have been avoided had they heeded the advice of the individuals they hired to handle the media.

Believe me, I know.


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