U.S. Senator Patrick J. Leahy gave me my first battle scars in the war zone between reporters and their subjects, especially if they are politicians.
PJ craved press. Every morning our Vermont office would send down the headlines from the statewide newspapers and TV stations. PJ would scan the news and harrumph if there was no mention of him. He would fume if Jim Jeffords, then the lone House member, made the headlines. At the same time that he craved press, he mistrusted reporters. He griped about them, avoided interviews and complained they were out to get him. Some were.
Shortly after I arrived as Leahy’s press secretary, the editor of my former paper, the Rutland Herald, penned a nasty editorial entitled “Patrick J. Sleazy,” alleging that PJ had played politics with some federal grants. Not true, but it wounded Leahy. He blamed me for not stopping it, not warning him, not figuring out how to blunt the blow.
I spent the next year trying to remedy PJ’s twisted relations with the press. Reporters were people. Treat them well, and they will give you a fair shake. Build relationships. Talk to them. After working in the Senate, I returned to reporting, but my year in the war zone served me well. It has informed my strategic practice.
— Know who covers your subject.
— Understand the publications.
— Establish relationships.
And: Set goals. Stay ahead of the news. There’s a time to respond and a time to remain silent. Digital news and social media can force instantaneous decisions and reactions. Best to have a reporter on your team.
My skills include writing speeches, op-ed essays, branded articles and twitter chatter. I have worked with lawyers, politicians, bankers, developers as well as reporters.
And Senator Leahy’s had a better relationship with the press since his year in my boot camp. He’s been reelected six times.
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