A Scathing Editorial And The Limits Of Being "On Message"

The Conway Daily Sun, a small newspaper in eastern New Hampshire, recently ran a scathing editorial that grabbed the attention of the nation’s political world.

The Sun has a relatively small print circulation—16,000 copies per day—but its diminutive size holds outsize power due to New Hampshire’s “First In The Nation” primary voting status (Iowa votes first, but is a caucus state).

Due to its importance, presidential candidates often pay the paper an in-person visit, as Florida Senator Marco Rubio did late last month. His visit resulted in what can only be described as a negative review. While reporter Erik Eisele was impressed with Rubio’s intelligence (“It was easy to see he is brilliant”), he was unimpressed with Rubio’s inability to connect with the publisher or newspaper staff.

There were several reasons for Eisele’s discontent, but one was more pronounced than the rest.

“We had roughly 20 minutes with him on Monday, and in that time he talked about ISIS, the economy, his political record and his background. But it was like watching a computer algorithm designed to cover talking points. He said a lot, but at the same time said nothing. It was like someone wound him up, pointed him towards the doors and pushed play. If there was a human side to senator, a soul, it didn’t come across.”

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Eisele had a keen grasp on the reasons for Rubio’s failure to connect, even if he deemed those reasons insufficient.

“Moments of idiocy, of poor word choice and brain farts are now captured and broadcast around the world. And it’s not uncommon for Fox News or NBC to broadcast to the world something recorded on a cellphone.

The result? An expectation of perfection, and candidates like Marco Rubio, a man so stuck on script it doesn’t even matter when the cameras are off. Living in a political environment where only the script makes sense, where the race is about the television audience rather than the general electorate, why deviate? Those willing to risk off-message interaction also risk alienating. It’s too great a risk, and retail politics drops by the wayside as voters are courted only by the millions, not one-by-one.”

But, he maintained, candidates should know that New Hampshire is different and prides itself on its outsize role in selecting presidents.

“We are here to meet and greet, to be the face of the country, to gauge individual interactions and then broadcast that gut feeling on to the nation. New Yorkers will never get to meet every candidate. Nor Californians, nor Texans, nor Floridians…And that’s what we offer the country: The chance to face presidential candidates like local politicians. The chance for them to prove they hear us. The chance to support the person, not just the politician.”

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Eisele’s diagnosis of why candidates resort to being on message is sound. Candidates should be better at gauging the demands of different formats. Giving a nationally televised speech has different demands than sitting around a table with a small group of local reporters.

This may seem to contradict my usual advice to remain on message. But a candidate meeting with a publisher is something of a hybrid between a typical news interview and a feature story. In The Media Training Bible (Support the blog! Buy now!), I write that:

“If you’re deemed interesting enough or successful enough, reporters may want to profile you as the focus of an in-depth “feature” story. Features, sometimes known as personal profiles, are more commonly the province of newspapers, magazines, and websites, but some broadcasters also air them…

For features, reporters will ask personal questions to learn more about your background—your place of birth, your educational and professional history, your marital status, your hobbies, what you’ve learned from your mistakes, your future goals, and more.

When answering those biographical questions, you’re usually not on message. That’s okay. Answering a question about your family life by saying you have a spouse and a child isn’t going to cause harm. But remain wary of saying anything that can make you look unusually quirky or that undercuts your message.”

That passage may not be a perfect correlate, but it’s close. Meetings with editorial boards are often, at least in part, about taking a measure of the candidate. Mr. Rubio would be wise to let future boards see more of his true self.

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