The people who sell presidents
Behind every ‘Super Tuesday’ there is a hidden PR bunfight to sell the US presidential candidates’ strengths and conceal their frailties. We unveil the spinmeisters
Howard Wolfson, Hillary Clinton’s communications supremo, hails from the Alastair Campbell school of spin doctoring.
Journalists complain about being cajoled, blackmailed and yelled at, and no negative story – no negative sentence – goes unpunished.
Most notoriously in the campaign so far, GQ was made to pull a negative story on Hillary’s presidential bid by a threat to stop co-operating with a Bill Clinton profile the magazine was also working on. Wolfson has flitted between campaign work and the private sector, where he is a partner and “crisis management” specialist at the New York office of PR firm Glover Park.
Also in the mix is media strategist Mandy Grunwald. She was an adviser on Bill Clinton’s nomination battle in 1992 and was the model for the sweetheart Daisy Green in the “fictionalised” expose of that roller-coaster campaign, Primary Colors.
The tension between the new politics Obama promises and the traditional debate is felt most keenly inside the Obama media operation, where veteran Democratic party spinmeister David Axelrod has had the resources to build an operation as sophisticated as that of the Clinton campaign, but where he has been trying to instil a less aggressive approach to dealing with the media.
Cultivating a laid-back air, Axelrod is a must-catch figure in the “spin room” where hacks and flacks mingle after the candidates’ debates. “Must-catch” because many journalists complain Obama relies on an inner circle of advisers and messages on strategy do not necessarily filter down through the operation.
Having started his career as a political reporter for the Chicago Tribune, Axelrod tied himself to several rising Chicago politicians in the ’80s and is an acknowledged genius in the marketing of a political “personality”.
It was by courting a string of influential columnists that the little-known former Arkansas governor Huckabee first got into contention in the Republican race.
The average political beat reporter had written off his presidential bid even before they had written about it, but columnists including The Washington Post’s widely syndicated E J Dionne picked him out. And so the momentum was built, with Kirsten Fedewa, a long-time press adviser from Huckabee’s days with the Republican governors’ association, at his side, and Alice Stewart, a glamorous Arkansas TV anchor, adding to this underfunded media operation.
Fedewa kept up the outreach to journalists, luring them with promises of easy access to her candidate, hunting for free coverage because there was no money for ads. For a moment, the Huckabee operation threatened to be overwhelmed – now it is back to begging for coverage.
The best public relations operation money can buy for the multi-millionaire private equity mogul who poured more than $20m of his money into this campaign.
They may have styled their candidate as a Washington outsider and an agent of “change”, but his press team leaders were the quintessential DC insiders. Communications supremo Matt Rhoades is a former research director at the Republican National Committee. And national press secretary Kevin Madden has an impressive pedigree that includes working for two former Republican leaders of the House of Representatives and as a spokesman for George Bush’s 2004 re-election campaign.
They built the most sophisticated of all the press operations – so sophisticated hacks complained of being spammed during debates, their inboxes filled up with Romney’s rebuttals of rival arguments even while the candidates were still on stage.
The headlines that resurrected McCain’s presidential campaign weren’t ones massaged by his press team, they were the headlines coming out of Iraq. Before Americans decided the surge was working, McCain was a dead man walking, and the abdication last July of his entire communications team appeared terminal for an already near-bankrupt campaign.
Campaign manager Terry Nelson quit, followed by comms chief Brian Jones and his two deputies. It was left to his loyal New Hampshire staffer Jill Hazelbaker to field the calls asking when her man would announce he was bowing out of the race. Hazelbaker is a toughie, having gone through the fire when PRing the campaign of Tom Kean at the 2006 election.
McCain has always made himself accessible to the press, although the press office continues to have a shoestring feel.
Katie Levinson came to Giuliani’s campaign with an impressive pedigree. Formerly director of TV at the White House, she was fresh from California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s successful re-election campaign.
However her career cul-de-sac as the former New York mayor’s communications director was hamstrung from the start.
“Secretive.” That was the view of the communications team from one Washington press corps veteran.
Levinson’s relatively small team made their share of missteps in what will surely be seen as one of the most spectacularly ill-judged political campaigns. They eschewed a full-on campaign in the early primaries, sending a blizzard of mailshots but making little contact with the local media and hardly setting foot in the states. Instead, Giuliani bet it all on Florida and lost that bet.
Hillary Clinton: 37,400. Barack Obama: 30,400. John McCain: 5,100. Ron Paul: 111,000. If convention delegates reflected YouTube clips, then the 72-year-old Congressman for Lake Jackson, Texas, would be on the verge of becoming president.
The libertarian Congressman’s insurgent campaign, while never likely to trouble the main contenders in the Republican field, has been the most surprising phenomenon of the primaries. His media operation is staffed by “true believers”, rather than PR campaign professionals, making it a turn-off for mainstream journalists. Yet Paul’s anti-war, anti-government message has energised a fervent, mainly young, segment of the Republican party.
Internet-based fundraising events have netted $6m in a day, and Justine Lam, e-campaign director, has used all opportunities for viral marketing to spread his message.
Political PR rule No 1: Don’t deliberately goad powerful people inside Rupert Murdoch’s media empire.
After John Edwards called on his rivals to hand back campaign cash from NewsCorp executives, NewsCorp revealed its publishing arm had paid Edwards $800,000 for his book Home published in 2006.
An indignant Jonathan Prince, deputy campaign manager to Edwards, fired off a furious e-mail threatening to wage a PR campaign against Fox News; News Corp’s spin chief Gary Ginsberg inquired “How do you spell ‘hypocrite’?” The exchange degenerated even further and ended up splashed all over Murdoch’s New York Post.
Edwards’ PR never got any better, and David Ginsberg, his communications director, had a testy relationship with most of the media, who he said were freezing Edwards out. (The Independent)
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