The fine art of flacking

They speak in monosyllables. They call you back the day after deadline. They “stay on message” by repeating the same phrase over and over, hoping that the only quote a reporter uses is the robotic response.

They speak in monosyllables. They call you back the day after deadline. They “stay on message” by repeating the same phrase over and over, hoping that the only quote a reporter uses is the robotic response.

At times they will be so bold as to step physically between you and their lawmaker boss, insisting, “The senator has to go.” At other times, they tell you their boss is out of the country and can’t possibly be reached.

Deflecting bad news takes certain finesse. Some flacks on Capitol Hill practice the above tactics consistently. Others pull them out like an old reliable tool, something to be used whenever a certain kind of situation beckons.

Of course, not all communications aides fit the mold. Many insist there are other, more truthful and transparent ways to operate a press shop. And indeed there are media-friendly offices and press secretaries who are informative, proactive and humorous and offer background interviews with staffers.

In recent weeks, in light of Vice President Cheney’s accidentally shooting a man and waiting some 20 hours to disclose it, White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan has faced enraged White House reporters. On Capitol Hill, many spokespeople insist that being open and honest is the only way to operate and that getting the truth out sooner rather than later is always the best course of action.

But are they deflecting even a story on deflecting?

“It is a matter of practice and experience and being able to steer a conversation toward issues you are looking to advance,” said a Democratic press secretary who, like many for this story, spoke on the condition of anonymity.

“It’s not a science; it’s an art. There’s no guidebook. There’s no training manual.

“The golden rule is you don’t answer the question you are asked, you answer the question you want to answer.”

Certain spokespeople didn’t appreciate the question about deflecting bad news. Bruce Cuthbertson, spokesman for Rep. Patrick Tiberi (R-Ohio), initially sounded chipper and friendly, but his mood quickly darkened.

Question: “What do you do when you get a question you’d rather not answer?”

Cuthbertson: “You know what? That’s one of those questions I don’t want to answer.”

Question: “Why?”

Cuthbertson: “Because I don’t.”

What is the big secret?

For many spokespeople, staying on message is key. “No matter the question, you can always find a transition back to your message,” the Democratic press secretary said. “Even when it comes to accidental shootings, a good spokesman can always go back to his or her talking points.”

Lanny Davis, former special counsel to President Clinton and among several damage-control experts who advised Martha Stewart before her indictment, said that a lawmaker and his or her press people must decide from the outset whether there is a matter is of public interest and act accordingly:

“If you reach a decision that there is interest, even if it makes you unhappy, you start by accepting the fact that there is public interest. There is only one choice: Tell the truth, tell it all, tell it early, tell it yourself.”

Davis, who is now with Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe, said that when handling a controversial situation it is often difficult to gauge the level of public interest. “So you wait a little while,” he said. “The decision you make is between being reactive and proactive.”

A GOP leadership aide who spoke on the condition of anonymity said that there are many ways to handle bad news and that the trick is knowing what to do, and when.

“It depends on the situation,” the aide said. “In a situation like [Cheney’s] you want to be the one creating the news. You want to control the news rather than have the news control you.”

Part of that strategy, the aide explained, is realizing basic offensive strategy techniques. “One: Announce what happened immediately. Put out as many facts as you can; makes you look like an honest broker. Two: Continue to update the media on the status of the problem. Three: Make sure that your boss’s face is in front of the issue. One paper is fine initially, but within 24 hours, depending on the problem, the elected official should have his voice in the mix, his face on TV, explaining the problem and how he feels.

“If you go into silent mode, it becomes a standoff between you and the media and the media usually wins unless something else overtakes the [news] cycle.”

And the staffer offers this sage advice: “You can pick your venue. You don’t have to have a full-fledged press conference. Choose a friendly network and get off the hook. Fox seems to be the network of choice amongst Republicans as of late.”

Some press people always return calls; others are more selective. “Not returning a call is rather rude,” the GOP leadership aide said. “I always return the call. I’ll just be honest: ‘My boss is unavailable to talk about this,’ [or] ‘This is going to be difficult for me to get this done by your deadline,’ [or] ‘Look, we’re not going to comment on this story.’”

The GOP aide said one problem for Republicans is that the pool of quality spokespeople is down because “we own the town. It’s hard to put the good talent in all the good spots because you just run out of talent,” noting how many Republican flacks have headed to K Street.

Phil Singer, communications director for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, learned the hard way that putting information out without thinking it through can be dangerous.

It was during his stint on Sen. John Kerry’s (D-Mass.) presidential campaign when he had his “worst screw up.” Singer disseminated information that subsequently backfired on the campaign, attracting an unflattering mention in The New York Times.

“I was pretty angry at myself for doing it,” Singer said. “It was stupid.”

Since then, Singer has a “Check for glass houses!” Post-it note stuck to his desk.

He admitted he has had “heated exchanges” with some reporters but tries to keep them to a minimum.

Kevin Madden, spokesman for House Majority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio), has dealt with his share of crisis management, with his ex-boss being ex-Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas). Even stronger than Singer, he believes that battling with a reporter has proved to be useless.

“Stamping your feet, crossing your arms and huffing and puffing does not provide reporters a glimpse into any professionalism,” he said, explaining that if he doesn’t like where a story is going he provides evidence and reason as to why a story is inaccurate or unfair.

Being truthful with reporters, he said, is important.

“Oftentimes there are sensitive issues that are still developing and can’t be talked about,” he said. “The best thing a press secretary can do is give a full update of where the process is at that moment.

“If you have information that you can’t release, let reporters know you can’t provide information, not that you don’t know because then you are being untruthful.”

Another way to deal with tricky matters is quickly moving on background with a reporter. A Senate Republican press secretary stammered something about “playing things straight with everyone” and how “there’s no tricks” before going on background for this story.

Once there, he more comfortably declared, “You find a way to get a reporter what they need without tripping yourself up. You always try to help a reporter out, unless it’s a reporter who has screwed you in some way. You can’t blackball someone, but you don’t go out of your way to help them. It’s not rocket science.”

Amy Auth, spokeswoman for Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.), did what many press secretaries do when they don’t initially know what to say — she said she’d call me back once she had a chance to think about what she does in the face of potentially bad press.

Sure enough, she called back. “I usually just say no comment,” she said.

“I try to be upfront at all times. It is within our right to say we’ll get back to you with an answer to your question, and I always try to unless it slips my mind. I respect the press. They are doing their job, and I am doing my job.”

Brian Walsh, spokesman for Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio), has had some prickly situations as of late in terms of dealing with his boss’s relationship with disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

“The most important step is to get all the facts out and get them out as quickly as possible,” Walsh said.

As a former spokesman to former Rep. Bob Barr (R-Ga.), he recalled a 2002 Fulton County fundraiser in which Barr, a National Rifle Association board member, accidentally fired a .38-caliber pistol and blasted out a glass door. “We gathered all the facts and gave it all at once to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution,” Walsh recalled. 

No one was injured in the Barr incident, but it was potentially volatile.

“You have two choices,” Walsh said. “Whether you like the story or you don’t like the story, you have to make the determination: Will it be less bad you telling it or your opponent telling it?

“Obviously the late-night comedians had fun with it. It was an accident. The congressman certainly realized it was important to get the facts out and get it behind you.”

Lawmakers have their own take on how their spokespeople should handle difficult stories.

Rep. Lacy Clay (D-Mo.) joked, “Usually I tell them to get rid of them.” More seriously, he explained, “[Spokespeople] have to report everything to me and my chief of staff. Plenty of times I have told them I don’t care to comment.”

Clay said he runs a tight press shop because “it can make you or break you.”

He says returning calls to the press is a must: “They have to return the call and tell them something. It may not be what you want to hear, [but] they don’t have to lie.”

He complained that sometimes reporters want him to do their homework for them “and I don’t care to do the work of the press.”

Rep. Robin Hayes (R-N.C.) said that as a general rule if there is something going on he’d rather tell the press than not. But watching the White House press corps in recent days has obviously irked him.

“The arrogance of the press corps at the White House is astounding,” he said, adding, “They sound like a bunch of whiny babies in a nursery.”


Tricks of the Trade

Say “I will call you back” and then don’t.

Repeat the same phrase over and over.

Try to talk the reporter out of writing the story.

Act brusque and distant.

Don’t return phone calls until the day after deadline.

Talk in short sentences.

Act as though you are in a hurry and need to get off the phone as soon as possible.