PRepping the Policy Pundits

Bill O’Reilly of Fox News

In spite of this new era of transparency in which leakers and whistleblowers are celebrated in many quarters, I’ll never understood the compulsion of some communications counselors for self-aggrandizement, often at the expense of their clients. (Actually I do understand it, but have a hard time reconciling it with the interests of the client.)

Take for example this feature story that appears in the “Lifestyle” section of today’s Washington Post. It highlights the efforts of left-leaning Media Matters and its outside media training firm to prepare a range of like-minded third-party experts to do public battle with the mostly Fox News-hosted purveyors of right-leaning rhetoric. From the Post:

Ed Schultz of MSNBC

“The primary mission of Media Matters, he said, is to obsessively monitor Fox News and call attention to its distortions. But now it’s moving into the operational phase, transforming from observers to shock troops. The organization, he said, had to “professionalize the training and booking” of a left-leaning counterpoise.”

So who benefits from allowing one of the Beltway’s most influential news organizations in on the prep session? Do you think for a moment the Republicans would open up their behind-the-scenes messaging and PR strategy sessions for public scrutiny? Doubtful.

The GOP has benefitted by letting the end result, not the means to that end, drive the narrative. Who could forget all those talking-head former generals who fanned out onto the airwaves to tow the party line?

Having conducted or participated in scores of media training sessions over the years, I can assure you that few, if any of my clients want the public to know how the sausage was made. In fact, revealing a client’s PR strategy, and in particular that he or she underwent communications training, can be cause for termination.

Today’s WashPost piece is faintly reminiscent of that New Yorker piece that took an up-close-and-personal look at the PR “war room” that Wal-Mart built to combat its antagonists. I certainly understood and appreciated the “we’ve got nothing to hide” motivation for opening the media curtain, but honestly, our industry has a ways to travel before reporters (and the public they serve) will accept the machinations of our professional calling, i.e.,

“Brenner [the expert-in-training] joined the other participants in a wood-paneled room on the carriage house’s ground floor. A camcorder stood on a tripod in the middle of desks arranged in a horseshoe formation. Black and white boards hung on the walls. Brock, with graying hair and blue tie, offered some words of wisdom to the class. Their conservative antagonists had all gone through rigorous media training at the Leadership Institute, he warned, but now they, too, would be armed with the ammunition to compete.”

Some justification for Media Matters’ decision to open its lair to a reporter (with the caveat to “withhold the names of participants who asked not to be identified”) might be found in the long-standing criticism of the Democrats’ PR shortcomings. Other than Obama’s digitally driven 2008 campaign, the Dems can’t seem to muster the ability to fight fire with fire to advance their political agenda:

“Since its inception in August 2009, the Progressive Talent Initiative, or PTI, has trained nearly 100 pundits who have appeared 800 times on television and radio. Media Matters uses that metric to pitch donors for more contributions, but its leadership believes that the surge of camera-ready liberals has recaptured lost ground in the media wars against conservatives.”

Perhaps the tide is changing.