Face Time

How do members of Congress become TV fixtures? It helps to follow a few basic rules.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates speaks during a taping of 'Meet the Press' at the NBC studio February 28, 2009 in Washington, DC. Gates spoke on various topics including the Obama Administration's plans to withdraw troops from Iraq, and our nation's military interests around the globe. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images for Meet the Press)  
National Journal
Dec. 12, 2014, midnight

On May 20, 2013, Sarah Cor­ley watched tele­vi­sion help­lessly as a tor­nado more than a mile wide barreled down on Moore, Ok­lahoma, the ho­met­own of her boss, Re­pub­lic­an Rep. Tom Cole. Cor­ley, who’s Cole’s com­mu­nic­a­tions dir­ect­or, watched the ball of debris grow big­ger and big­ger as it ap­proached and then laid waste to the Ok­lahoma City sub­urb, killing 24 people. It was a tragedy. And any time a tragedy hap­pens, me­dia out­lets want to hear from of­fi­cials who have a per­son­al con­nec­tion.

De­fense Sec­ret­ary Robert Gates dur­ing a tap­ing of NBC’s Meet the Press. (Alex Wong/Getty Im­ages)”As soon as it went through Moore, the phone just star­ted ringing off the hook,” Cor­ley re­calls. “I don’t think I left the of­fice un­til mid­night that night. Re­quests kept com­ing. We were schedul­ing as much TV as we could. It was a long night.”

For a com­mu­nic­a­tions dir­ect­or, this was a tri­al by fire. Every­body, it seemed, wanted Cole on air: ABC, CNN, MS­N­BC, Fox, loc­al sta­tions, ra­dio shows, you name it. But Cor­ley didn’t ig­nore a single con­tact—and to this day, she still doesn’t. It’s an ap­proach she re­com­mends to any con­gres­sion­al staffer who’s charged with press re­la­tions. “Since then, my motto has al­ways been to ac­know­ledge every re­quest,” she says. “If it doesn’t work out, I al­ways en­cour­age the book­er or the pro­du­cer to stay in touch with me and keep the con­gress­man in mind for the fu­ture. There is nev­er any un­im­port­ant re­quest or per­son.”

Since the tor­nado, Cole has be­come a reg­u­lar pan­el mem­ber on ABC’s This Week With George Stephan­o­poulos, and a fre­quent cable-news guest. Cor­ley cred­its those me­dia op­por­tun­it­ies to strong re­la­tion­ships with book­ers and pro­du­cers; she also cites Cole’s “reas­on­able voice” on is­sues of the day.

Many mem­bers of Con­gress would love to be­come reg­u­lars on na­tion­al pro­grams, but no one gets to the ex­pos­ure level of a John Mc­Cain or a Chuck Schu­mer overnight. Con­gres­sion­al aides who have suc­ceeded in put­ting their bosses for­ward have found a few keys to mak­ing it hap­pen. First, it helps to pack­age the mem­ber as “an ex­pert on something,” and to really fo­cus on what makes him or her rel­ev­ant to the news cycle, says a former cable-news pro­du­cer who’s now a Re­pub­lic­an staffer. “The biggest thing that press aides of­ten miss is an op­por­tun­ity to con­nect their boss to the news of the day and the news cycle it­self.” That’s the me­dia strategy that Rep. Adam Kin­zinger, a young vet­er­an of the Ir­aq and Afgh­anistan wars, suc­cess­fully fol­lowed to be­come one of the more prom­in­ent hawks on Cap­it­ol Hill—a Mc­Cain of the lower cham­ber, bat­tling what he sees as the GOP’s isol­a­tion­ist drift. The Illinois Re­pub­lic­an gained na­tion­al at­ten­tion from news out­lets on both the right and the left for his know­ledge­able and tempered per­form­ance when then-Sec­ret­ary of State Hil­lary Clin­ton test­i­fied at a House hear­ing on the ter­ror­ist at­tack in Benghazi, Libya—and Kin­zinger’s staff built on that. Since the hear­ing, he has made the rounds of the Sunday shows, in­clud­ing This Week, State of the Uni­on, Meet the Press, and Face the Na­tion. Pretty good for a mem­ber with no seni­or­ity, and no com­mit­tee (or sub­com­mit­tee) chair­man­ship.

“When for­eign policy is­sues come up, it’s not a dif­fi­cult pitch to say, ‘Rep­res­ent­at­ive Kin­zinger would be a great voice on this,” says Zach Hunter, his com­mu­nic­a­tions dir­ect­or. “And he’s go­ing to do it in a reas­on­able, re­spect­ful way. He’s not go­ing to throw bombs to chase the sug­ar high of the next tele­vi­sion hit. It’s go­ing to be a sub­stant­ive push to move the needle on for­eign policy.”

Hunter has a long list of do’s and don’ts for deal­ing with the press: For starters, make the ex­tra ef­fort to write pleas­ant emails to re­port­ers, pro­du­cers, and book­ers—but don’t pitch your boss 300 times a day. “You want to be friendly, you want to be ac­com­mod­at­ing, but you nev­er, ever want to come off as des­per­ate,” Hunter says. “Com­ing across as des­per­ate is a turnoff to book­ers, to re­port­ers. They can smell when a flack needs to get their boss out there.” When you do make a pitch, he says, give it to ‘em on a sil­ver plat­ter, in­clud­ing back­ground and talk­ing points, and al­ways make clear why it’s rel­ev­ant to the cur­rent news cycle. And once you have a book­ing, get your mem­ber of Con­gress to the stu­dio 20 minutes early so pro­du­cers won’t pan­ic.

The com­mon thread to suc­cess­ful press op­er­a­tions is a re­cog­ni­tion that mem­bers of the press are not ad­versar­ies. Look at it as a mu­tu­ally be­ne­fi­cial re­la­tion­ship, Hunter and the oth­ers ad­vise. Com­mu­nic­a­tions dir­ect­ors need to get their bosses on TV, after all, and pro­du­cers need to fill their shows. Be­ing re­spons­ive and re­cept­ive count for a lot. While shows like to fea­ture guests who can help them make news, the former pro­du­cer says, it of­ten comes down to something more ba­sic: “We look for some­body who also is just avail­able.”

Cor­rec­tion: A pre­vi­ous ver­sion had the in­cor­rect date of the Moore tor­nado.

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