Thursday, October 18, 2012

Press Releases: Rating the campaigns

Published in the Portland Phoenix

When reporters are trying to get info on candidates to share with voters, campaign staff hold the keys to the kingdom. They can get answers, arrange meetings, and share information. Or they can decide not to do those things. Campaigns with small staffs or tiny budgets aren't necessarily worse; neither does more money and experience guarantee a better level of communication.
We spoke with many political reporters around the state, from many of the largest news outlets. We promised them anonymity in exchange for candor. Here's what we learned about what's behind the scenes in the biggest race in Maine, the chase for the US Senate.
ANGUS KING His campaign is very fast to respond to inquiries, and serious about staying on top of developing stories. Sometimes that concern develops into a "tizzy," as one reporter put it. Reporters agree that the King campaign is the most worried of all six candidates' about ensuring it's coming across well in the media. The campaign started "thin-skinned," according to one reporter, and while the attitude has improved, that tendency to be "nitpicky over small things" remains, with one person calling the campaign "really sensitive." At times King's staff will question the premise of a reporter's story, or even suggest an alternative topic or angle that would be more favorable to their man. Nevertheless, getting to actually speak with King is quite easy.
CHARLIE SUMMERS Initially, the campaign struggled to communicate with the media, but when Lance Dutson was replaced as the top spokesman, things improved significantly, reporters agree. (Though that hasn't meant returning multiple communiques from thePhoenix.) Dutson's successor is Drew Brandewie, whose regular job is as press secretary for the US Senate office of Texas Republican John Cornyn, who chairs the National Republican Senatorial Committee. (See how much the GOP wants to win this race?) Under Brandewie, the campaign responds "efficiently and telegraphically," to questions, and issues more email announcements (too many, in some opinions). The campaign "thinks through all of the political calculations" relating to press inquiries; according to one reporter, Summers's practice of skipping candidate debates and forums extends to "actively avoiding" the press. The candidate himself can be very difficult to get on the phone, but "you can stalk him" with some success.
CYNTHIA DILL Reporters panned this campaign, with many reporters using phrases like "something of a disaster," "ill-prepared," and "complete mayhem" to describe its media interaction. Things began reasonably well with former Kennebec Journal editor Bob Mentzinger at the helm, running a "professional, smooth" operation. But mid-campaign he was replaced by former Press Herald top editor Jeannine Guttman, who regularly issues statements on Dill's behalf but is rarely in actual substantive contact with reporters, and has been slow to respond to many inquiries from multiple parties at different publications. (Scheduler Kate Cadena has been very helpful, though.) And one reporter described having a better experience with Guttman than with Mentzinger, but agreed that non-email contact was infrequent.)
ANDREW IAN DODGE is "happy to talk," personable, and extremely fast to respond. (Anecdotal example: I sent him an email, and in response he personally called my direct office line less than 30 seconds after I hit "Send.") Fewer reporters were able to describe interactions with him (and with Danny Dalton and Steve Woods), citing their supervisors' decisions to pay those efforts significantly less attention than the King, Summers, and Dill campaigns.
DANNY DALTON is also "happy to talk," but often expounds at great length on material "beyond the scope of the campaign," such as the whereabouts of Taliban commanders in Afghanistan and the activities of the brother of Afghan president Hamid Karzai. He can be dismissive of those who seek to discuss other issues.
STEVE WOODS is the candidate who most impressed reporters at the outset as being a serious candidate, if a political unknown. But after an initial flash of activity, Woods "disappeared" from the inboxes of many reporters. While he is quick to respond when contacted by the press, his lack of direct outreach may have doomed his campaign.