Message Control

Last Thursday, for apparently the first time in the Monitor’s 42-year history of hosting newsmaker breakfasts, reporters assembled at the St. Regis Hotel without knowing who our speaker would be.

The reason tells you how tightly the Obama campaign controls its message.

I had been writing to senior Obama campaign officials for months, inviting them to speak at one of our breakfasts. Senator Obama was the guest at memorable Monitor lunch at the Democratic convention in Boston in August, 2004. The headline on my blog that day was “Catching a rising star.”

But despite repeated entreaties and the appearance of senior officials from the Clinton and McCain campaigns at Monitor-sponsored gatherings this year, top Obama strategists had remained illusive.

So I was delighted last Tuesday morning to find a message on my Blackberry saying Obama officials were willing to meet with us on Thursday. “It will be a couple of senior campaign officials, but we plan to make some news that day and if we put out who the officials are I think it will tip people off,” the Obama press office said.

So the language I could use in writing to Washington bureau chiefs about the gathering was “senior Obama campaign staff.” Despite not knowing who would appear to be interviewed, 47 political reporters and columnists signed up for the session. It tells you how hungry political reporters are for contact with top Obama campaign officials.

It wasn’t until 5:40 a.m. Thursday when I was given the name of the guests – Obama Campaign Communications Director Robert Gibbs and campaign General Counsel Robert Bauer.

For understandable reasons, the Obama media team did not want to leave it to scribes from newspapers and newsmagazines to be the ones to break the news that Senator Obama was changing his position and would not accept public financing for the general election.

So at 8:50 a.m., while journalists were still assembling for the Monitor breakfast, the Obama campaign emailed supporters and journalists a video of their candidate announcing his decision not to participate in the public financing system. In the video, the Senator explained, “the public financing system of presidential elections as it exists today is broken, and we face opponents who’ve become masters of gaming this broken system.”

And in another bit of skilful message management, later the same day the campaign released the first TV ad of the general election season stressing the candidate’s patriotism, filled with evocative photos from Obama’s past. It gave the networks and cable outlets additional newsworthy video not tied to the controversial decision to avoid public financing.

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