Clinton faces tough decision on whether to address media about FBI

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Hillary Clinton has a big dilemma she needs to resolve. 

The former secretary of State escaped criminal charges over her handling of classified information this week, though her use of a private email server was judged to be “extremely careless” by FBI Director James Comey.

{mosads}Comey also poked holes in past statements by Clinton, saying that she had sent classified information over the private email system, that some work-related emails had been deleted and were not handed to the FBI, that she used multiple devices as part of the setup and that it was possible some emails had been hacked.

The stinging criticism from the nation’s top law enforcement official along with Comey’s day-long hearing Thursday in which he was grilled by House Republicans ensure that the email story isn’t going away, despite the lack of criminal charges.

Several other congressional panels are digging in on the issue, and House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) signaled he will refer Clinton’s testimony on her email system to the Benghazi panel to the FBI, suggesting she may have lied under oath.

That leaves Clinton and her campaign confronting a tough strategic decision. She hasn’t held a press conference in 215 days, but should she break that streak and address the media over the email controversy? And if so, what should the setting be?

“Mrs. Clinton is past due for a news conference or talking to a group of reporters in some setting,” said Scott Sobel, a senior strategy and communications executive. “If she doesn’t, she risks more cover-up and not being transparent accusations.”

Clinton so far has said nothing in public about the FBI’s decision. Her campaign team has focused on ripping Republicans while arguing it is time to move on from the email issue.

Over the course of her presidential campaign, Clinton and her team have preferred to put the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee in non-traditional media settings.

She’s done Ellen DeGeneres’s daytime show, made late-night appearances on Jimmy Fallon’s and Jimmy Kimmel’s shows and even did a bit on “Saturday Night Live.”

It’s also become more common for Clinton to call in to morning news shows, a format that makes follow-up questions more difficult.

What Clinton hasn’t done is hold a press conference or sit down for a one-on-one interview with the host of a Sunday morning show, all of whom would be dying for her to appear this weekend.

The strategy didn’t prevent Clinton from winning the Democratic primary, but it’s also possible it has contributed to her weaknesses with voters.

Polls show Clinton is running neck-and-neck with Republican Donald Trump when it comes to questions about trustworthiness and honesty — a troubling sign for the Democrat.

Jennefer Witter, CEO of the public relations firm The Boreland Group in New York, noted that a recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found that voters associated the worlds “liar,” “not trustworthy” and “scandals” with Clinton.

“The aftermath of the debacle with President [Bill] Clinton’s meeting with Attorney General Lynch and the drubbing she received in the FBI report don’t foster a greater level of trust,” Wetter said, referring to the former president’s meeting with Loretta Lynch on an Arizona tarmac.

She argues that Clinton should hold a full press conference and answer each and every questions.

“Having a no-holds barred press conference will, at least, have her in front of the media and appear to be receptive to answering pressing questions in an open manner,” she said.

Sobel agrees, arguing that holding a press conference could provide more reward than risk for Clinton.

“If she does hold a conference she can control the battlefield to a degree by limiting the amount of time she will take questions, as she has a busy schedule and must move on,” he said. “After her public statement to the hungry media, she can field individual emailed questions as time permits.”

Any interview — even in a friendly setting — would be her most difficult as a candidate.

Not everyone thinks Clinton should do a press conference or even set up a one-on-one interview to deal with the email issue.

A poor showing could exacerbate Clinton’s existing problems with voters and give new opportunities to Trump and other Republicans.

“I’d tell her to keep attacking Trump at every stump speech and let the server issue go,” advises Tina Cassidy, a former political reporter turned PR executive and executive vice president of the Massachusetts-based PR company Inkhouse.

“Moderators will bring up the investigation at the debates and social media will rage, but with the news cycle so short these days, and the FBI saying no charges are needed, she should just move on,” Cassidy said.

Andrew Ricci of the D.C.-based Levick, a strategic communications and public affairs firm, argues Clinton should point out she’s already talked about the email issue.

“In the eyes of her campaign and her supporters, she’s already done the interviews and talk shows about it, and nothing she says or does are going to quiet her critics, just like her supporters aren’t going to be swayed by their criticism,” he said. “On the whole, they’re already over it.” 


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