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The Obama White House’s PR end run

June 15, 2012

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney. Credit (UPI/Kevin Dietsch)

Earlier this week we saw the White House execute an admirable end run around the White House press corps.  Press Secretary Jay Carney welcomed journalists from rural America to Washington for exclusive interviews with President Obama and White House decision-makers.  Participating journalists hailed from Green Bay, WI, Asheville, NC, Roanoke, VA and Colorado Springs, CO.

The strategy is not new to the White House. President Bush’s team extended similar invitations and also reserved one-on-one time between the president and local reporters as he crisscrossed the country.

The goal of such a strategy is clear: The White House press corps – those who live in the bubble of Washington politics – often have very different priorities than news teams in Green Bay and Roanoke.  By inviting  in rural correspondents who care little about Beltway parlor games, the White House can broaden its audience and establish a different narrative with voters.  It’s no coincidence that the participating news teams hail from swing states vital to President Obama’s reelection.

We employed a similar strategy when I served as press secretary to the Governor of Maryland.  Three times a year we invited a dozen rural media outlets – organizations that couldn’t afford to send a reporter to Annapolis every day – to a 90 minute on-the-record Q&A lunch with the Governor at his residence.  Doing so let them converse directly with the Governor about their readers’ priorities rather than rely on what the State House press corps (or flacks like me) told them. Access like this is vital because the priorities of rural communities are often quite different from the urban communities that large daily newspapers and television stations represent. The State House press corps was nothing but professional and hard working; they just had different priorities a lot of the time.

The White House’s end run should serve as a reminder to corporate communications teams that there is virtue in diversifying relationships with opinion leaders. Markets, demographics and consumer sentiment are constantly changing.  Find new lanes of opportunity.  Whether at the White House or a trade show, broadening your relationships with editors, journalists and bloggers gives your message a greater chance of breaking through the most restrictive echo chambers.

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