Saturday, June 16, 2007

"It's going to be an absolute zoo!"

I've just finished reading Going to Heaven: The Life and Election of Bishop Robinson by Elizabeth Adams, the proprietor of the blog The Cassandra Papers. The Robinson biography is a gentle, kind story of this warm man's life, family and New Hampshire context, pretty much the antithesis of the fiery diatribes and impassioned defenses the election and consecration of the Anglican world's first gay bishop evoked. I recommend it highly for those interested in the person as well as "the issue."

But I'm not going to write about that. Rather, I want to take up one of Adams' subplots: the extraordinarily effective communications work done for the bishop and the Diocese of New Hampshire by consultant Mike Barwell. It has been obvious to anyone paying attention that the media dealt reasonably sympathetically with a subject (a religious election with a gay theme) about which they could have been expected to be both ignorant and pruriently sensationalist. I've worked with gay candidates running for office. I've seen the mainstream media obsess about sexuality issues, even when who people love is completely peripheral to the story. In Robinson's case, his gay identity actually was the trigger for the story, so managing to keep the media more or less reasonable was a great accomplishment.

Anyone likely to have to deal with media in a heated situation can learn from what Adams reports of Barwell's work:
  • Start early and be ready for fireworks. Before Robinson was even nominated, Barwell asked the committee:

    "If Gene is nominated, what are your preparations for anything from nasty phone calls to bomb threats? What are you going to say to people? How are you going to answer the phone? What do you do if someone makes a threat? Have you notified the police? What statement does the diocese have about why it would nominate Gene? ,,, All those things had to be developed from scratch."

  • Do help the press get the story. Well before the actual election, Barwell registered and credentialed the press -- and gave them background on the unfamiliar process by which Episcopalians choose bishops. On most matters outside the most familiar daily experience, reporters need help to get up to speed. They have to report far too many stories to be experts on the stuff that is usually most important to people inside the story. Help them!

    "What I could do was provide enough background information for the media to ask intelligent questions, but I would not be quoted directly. This helped people and made them look good when they went into a press conference or went in to ask a question. ...And we built friendships that way. There was a lot of trust that evolved and the trust was returned."

  • If the subject of the story is an engaging person, give the media access to the person. Barwell was fortunate that Bishop Robinson likes to talk with people, so he was a great interview subject. The communications consultant was able to screen requests and enable most reporters to get a one on one with the bishop.
  • Though they aimed to make Robinson available, "we didn't want to turn it into a media circus." Barwell was reactive to reporters, not proactive. If Robinson's elevation was at all a circus, it was because of the appetite of the media, not choices by the bishop or diocese.
  • Interact with reporters as individuals; keep them from acting like a herd. Robinson didn't do big press conferences -- he gave interviews instead. Barwell said: "It's less confrontational, because the press can't feed off each other -- there's just you and the reporter."
  • Stay calm; stick to your plan. Barwell reports: "the one thing I think I brought to the process ... was the ability to stay calm -- not to panic, to have a plan, to stay calm in the middle of chaos, and to be non-anxious..." The press remains more measured if you can model that for them.
  • Accept that you can't completely stay on message. Things happen and people act in ways you can't anticipate, even in so well-ordered and ritualistic an environment as the The Episcopal Church. Know that, in Barwell's words "of course, you can control a story like that just so far."
There's insight here for anyone working a campaign on a hot issue. And a good story!


Grandmère Mimi said...

Looks to me as though Barwell did his job extremely well. Gene Robinson made his job easier. There was something of a media circus, because the opponents of Robinson could not be controlled and got in their licks.

But I agree. It could have been much worse.

Grandmère Mimi said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Grandmère Mimi said...

The deletion is mine. I did a double post.

Beth said...

Thanks a lot for the link and review. I'll forward it to Mike Barwell, who will be pleased! I'm glad you liked the book -- good luck with your own work!

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