Advanced Media Training Tip: It's Not This, It's That

A few years ago, I worked with a group that had a controversial public position on an economic issue related to illegal immigration.

The group’s mission had nothing to do with immigration, but the economic issue they were concerned about affected workers who were in the United States illegally. No matter how much they tried to explain that to reporters, news stories would inevitably state that the group was “anti-immigrant.”

Finally, we tried a new strategy. Whenever reporters would ask about immigration, we’d say, “This is not about immigration. It’s about an economic issue that affects tens of millions of Americans.”

Inevitably, they would push back: “But it affects illegal immigrants,” they’d argue. “It affects a lot of people,” we retorted. “This economic issue affects tens of millions of people, including seniors, the disabled, and middle-class workers.”

That approach helped. By reframing the issue and refusing to acknowledge the narrow frame the reporter drew around it, we were usually able to get our key quote in the story: “This is not about immigration.”

If you’ve been watching the debate between the Catholic Church and the Obama Administration, you’ve probably observed this strategy at work. Supporters of the Catholic Church’s position have claimed, “This is not about contraception – it’s about religious freedom.” Supporters of President Obama’s position have said the opposite: “This is not about religious freedom. It’s about denying health care to millions of women.”

Many Church supporters have failed to use the “It’s not this, it’s that” approach, and have gotten dragged into the weeds on the contraception issue as a result. The more they fail to redirect the conversation to religious freedom, the more they’re losing.

On the other hand, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) demonstrated how to use this technique well during a recent appearance on NBC’s Meet The Press.

Like most interviewing techniques, this approach should be deployed judiciously, and works best on topics that have two legitimate competing values. But in the right situations, it will help increase your odds of influencing the storyline and getting the quotes you want.

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