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:
- 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!
- 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."