Preempting Problems with Reporters Before They Become a Campaign Issue:

Preempting Problems with Reporters Before They Become a Campaign Issue:

Last week I suggested that candidates for public office are well advised to have a pre-announcement conversation with reporters to establish a relationship.  Pre-announcement meetings are also a good opportunity to pre-empt anything in your background that could present a problem during your campaign for public office. Put your problems (or past indiscretions) out on your terms in advance of your announcement…because if you don’t your opponent or their agents will and if it is new news to reporters I can guarantee you that it will be a story.

This week. Some Case Studies.

Running into the final weekend of the 2000 Presidential election, George Bush had what his advisors thought was a comfortable lead. Then came the story about a young George Bush who had, years before, been arrested for drunk driving in the State of Maine.

It was news to the reporters covering the campaign, and even bigger news to an electorate who’d never heard about Bush’s youthful indiscretion. It dominated news coverage and particularly cable chatter during the final weekend as the last of the undecided voters were making up their minds. Undecided voters that had been leaning toward Bush quit leaning. The born again Christians that were part of the backbone of Bush’s coalition stayed home in droves. It nearly cost Bush the election and it did cost him the popular vote.

Bush’s campaign operatives knew about what had happened in Maine. They knew about the arrest and the circumstances. And they had debated whether to put it out with a friendly reporter on Bush’s terms. They chose not to. They were lucky the mistake was not fatal.

The lesson? 1. Don’t assume that a past “problem” in your background is going to remain a state secret. Good opposition researchers can track nearly every place you have ever lived and the neighbors you had and the oppo people can be very aggressive about finding people all too willing to talk about that problem you once had. This is especially try if your “problem” may have been a part of the “public” record, such as an arrest or court proceeding. 2. If you don’t put your version of the story out first, you will be playing defense trying to “explain” a bad story put out on your opponent’s terms. (guess what—your opponent is not going to cut you any slack or give you the benefit of the doubt when they do it).

In hindsight, Bush would have been well advised to offer this juicy little tidbit about his wild and crazy young years to a friendly reporter, prepared to assert that he had learned a valuable lesson about the dangers of drinking and driving, and asserting that it was one of the episodes that led to his deep faith. Had he done so, the prolonged debate about who won Florida would never have happened.


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