How Politicians Use Media to Win Elections

A picture of a politician talking to the media
••• Photo ¬© OJO_Images / Getty Images

Politicians are often quick to blame the media when a news story doesn't put them in a favorable light. But, politicians also use the media to win elections by getting the (often free) exposure they need to reach voters. Reporters have no choice but to cover the people chosen to lead the government or who are front-runners for a political party. In election years, people who work in media should prepare themselves for the manipulation they'll likely face when a politician's quest for office runs head-on into the media's desire to seek the truth.

Staged Political Rallies

Rallies are designed to show the voters' spontaneous excitement for a candidate. There's nothing wrong with that. But those homemade signs that you see waving in the air are often drawn by campaign workers themselves, not people at home. Sometimes the crowds are even made up of campaign workers and volunteers so that the TV cameras don't capture an empty room. They'll be dressed so they appear to be moms and dads, factory workers and teachers, but that can be just an illusion.

Take note of the backdrop behind the candidate. Sometimes those people are carefully chosen so they appear in photos and in news coverage. If a candidate is doing poorly with young voters, expect to see college students and people in their 20s in the background. Race and gender are also considered when deciding who gets to sit or stand behind the candidate during a campaign speech.

President Trump not only ran an aggressive media campaign in the run-up to the 2016 election with several campaign rally stops, he has also maintained a touring schedule throughout his first term, including increased spectacles to support 2018 GOP candidates in the mid-term elections, to varying degrees of success. Nonetheless, the media covered these events and often broadcast them live to television sets and internet screens across the nation.

News-less News Conferences

The sure-fire way for a candidate to get media coverage is to invite reporters to a news conference for an "important announcement." That announcement could be the same tired 10-point economic plan that the candidate has announced twice a week for the past six months. It could be a "major endorsement" from his Sunday School teacher or a "demand for the truth" about why an opponent refuses to debate.

You won't know until you get there because a campaign doesn't want to admit that its big news is really no big deal for fear that you'll be a no-show. It's worth attending these news conferences so you can get access to the candidate.

But beware of rules designed to keep you on a leash. You may be told the candidate will be happy to talk about why he's in favor of good schools, but any other topic, like his recent sex scandal, is off limits. Another common trick is to say that the candidate is really busy and can't take any questions at all, so he can be on time for his next event. People who organize news conferences don't make accommodating your every wish their top priority.

"Exclusive" One-on-One Interviews

Nothing tempts reporters like a chance for an exclusive interview. A campaign will sometimes dangle these offers just before election day to guarantee news coverage. Campaign experts know an exclusive interview will be promoted heavily and be given more space in a newspaper or more time in a TV newscast than a typical day-to-day campaign story. That's free publicity.

Don't accept any conditions for granting such valuable exposure. No questions should be off the table. If you're told you only have five minutes with the candidate, negotiate for more time by saying you need to also shoot photos or additional video to make your story the best it can be. Unless you're in a small city covering a presidential candidate, you should be able to win that battle.

Expect the campaign to shop the candidate around for other "exclusive" opportunities. You may have had the exclusive for the 6:00 p.m. TV newscast, but a radio station may get the candidate for its morning show the next day. Presently, it appears that Fox News has scored exclusivity in terms of interviewing Donald Trump as well as other White House officials, at the expense of what the President (incorrectly) labels "fake news" broadcast elsewhere.

TV Commercials and Print Ads

Any candidate with enough money will spend some of it on TV and print advertisements. Just like all other ads, the aim is to sell a product, not necessarily to tell the entire truth about the candidate or his campaign.

That's no surprise, but you may not know about the rules that give a political campaign an advantage over the media. Thanks to campaign laws concerning the media, ad space has to be sold at the lowest available rate. Not only that, media outlets have very little control over what is said in a political advertisement, even if it is misleading or downright false.

The Communications Act of 1934 outlined how political ads were to be handled by radio stations. Today, many of those same rules apply. Clips from newspaper stories or TV newscasts can even be used without permission, as part of "fair use" guidelines -- even if the clip is twisted to imply the exact opposite of what was originally said.

Friendly, Harmless Media Coverage

Ever wonder why a politician who has no time to be a guest on a show like Meet the Press is suddenly available to appear on The Tonight Show? It's not because his schedule suddenly opened up.

Jimmy Fallon ruffled candidate Trump's hair during his late-night broadcast. President Obama has even taken a seat next to Stephen Colbert on his. Candidates and politicians also have appeared on venues such as Saturday Night Live. These types of setting allows a politician to be on TV without (always) being asked pesky questions about his policies.

For a little-known candidate, this experience is a media gold mine. He can talk about his family and his hopes for a better world for all of us. A talk show host is likely to ask softball questions to let the candidate appear relaxed and human.

A call-in talk radio show provides an additional opportunity. A good campaign manager will do everything possible to make sure she can plant phone calls that are taken on the air. A host who takes call after call from people thrilled to just get the chance to talk to the candidate should suspect that his show has been taken over by the campaign. Campaigns know that finding the right political radio talk show can help win elections.

Family Photo Spreads

At the height of a campaign, it's no coincidence that a magazine has a cover story that takes you inside the home of the candidate. You can see his wife baking cookies for charity in their newly remodeled kitchen and get her secret recipes.

This spread can do more for a campaign than the candidate's position statement on fighting crime. Readers will feel as though they know the entire family, and that familiarity brings support at the ballot box.

It's a delicate balance between getting a story that might boost sales and knowing that you're being used. Decide if a trade-off is worth it and whether to seek the same type of story from other candidates to demonstrate fairness. While you want to avoid ethical questions of photo manipulation, don't allow the campaign to have the final say in which images are published.

Social Media

It's typical for a candidate to criticize traditional media for not allowing "the whole story" to get out to the voters. A candidate will moan that his entire 45-minute news conference wasn't aired in its entirety on a 30-minute newscast, which would be impossible. It's a reporter's job to edit so that the most important information is presented to the audience.

Today, a candidate can bypass broadcast and print media to reach his potential voters through social media. A Facebook page can show he has 20,000 fans, offer his entire news conference and most importantly, allow him a totally unfiltered way to speak. President Obama had a successful web strategy that helped him win the 2008 presidential campaign.

A wise candidate should realize that social media is a tool, but it has yet to replace the value of getting his face on the front page of the paper or on the 6:00 p.m. newscast. While the candidates may tout their "grassroots campaign" using social media to get in direct touch with voters, they know they need you desperately to win.

Candidate and then President Trump utilized Twitter on a frequent basis to telegraph policy, to endorse candidates, and to criticize the mainstream press to a set of millions of followers. Moreover, mainstream media often has picked up on some of his more controversial tweets, bringing social media into the pages of mainstream media outlets.

Media as a Punching Bag

Politicians who are pleased with a particular news story will sometimes praise the reporter for fairness and objectivity. When the story's not so positive, claims of media bias will usually pour out from the campaign.

A good reporter should present the facts without fear or favor and not seek out praise or shy away from criticism. But when a candidate stumbles or seems unprepared, as some say former Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin appeared in 2008, the campaign will try to shift the focus from the candidate to the media.

Candidates are human -- tired, stressed and worried about failing. Sometimes those normal frailties come out in an interview. A media outlet is faced with a decision on whether to show candidates when they're not at their best.

In Palin's case, there were calls of political and gender bias. But Bill Clinton is a man and a Democrat, and his campaign also fought the media during his 1992 presidential campaign when allegations of womanizing were first brought up. While media outlets were attacked then, Clinton's impeachment after the Monica Lewinsky scandal showed that it was a legitimate issue. Media manipulation will never stop as long as there are people seeking elected office. By educating yourself on how you might be used, you'll make smarter decisions when you're on the campaign trail.

Donald Trump has often been critical of the media and journalism, especially those who have taken a critical eye to his policies or have tried to uncover the truth behind his business practices or foreign dealings. He has even gone so far as to label the media the "enemy of the people," which is a direct challenge to the First Amendment rights of free speech and freedom of the press guaranteed to journalists and media outlets.