Since news of her death early Saturday, the media have widely hailed Geraldine Ferraro’s status as a pioneer. But the first woman on a national political ticket was a pioneer in at least one other way – she ushered in the crisis communications tactic of the marathon press conference, in which a spokesperson attempts to quash a crisis by taking virtually every question the assembled journalists can think of, effectively outlasting the reporters.
First, the background. Just days after being selected as Walter Mondale’s vice presidential running mate in July 1984, the press began investigating shady financial dealings involving Ms. Ferraro and her husband.
The media circus only intensified when Ferraro made – and then reversed – a pledge to release her husband’s tax returns. When she explained her change of mind, she quipped, “You people who are married to Italian men, you know what it’s like,” which fueled even more critical coverage.
On August 21, 1984, Ms. Ferraro held a nearly two-hour conference in front of 200 reporters. That marathon press conference – unparalleled in modern presidential campaigns – was ostensibly intended to quell the public storm through full disclosure. But it accomplished at least three other critical things:
1. It helped reverse the narrative that she was not transparent. 2. It turned her into a more sympathetic figure. 3. It offered Ms. Ferraro a vital opportunity to show her mettle as a female candidate who could endure the intensity of the media’s scrutiny.
From The New York Times, August 22, 1984:
“Yesterday, Mrs. Ferraro subjected herself to nearly two hours of grueling questioning by reporters in an effort to quiet a controversy that has followed her for two weeks and threatened to derail her campaign.”
Far from derailing her campaign, the marathon press conference largely put the issue to rest (financial issues continued to dog her, but with nowhere close to the same level of intensity).
In an age of media consultants who limit access to candidates, it’s difficult to fathom a candidate who would be willing to endure a two-hour marathon press conference today. But as a media trainer and crisis communications coach, I would encourage my peers to keep this arrow in their quiver.
Sure, it’s a risky strategy fraught with potential dangers. But the right candidates – especially those who can remain unflappable while appearing genuine and likeable – can manage their crises with the same effectiveness as Ferraro.
One interesting side note: In a 2006 episode of The West Wing written by Lawrence O’Donnell, GOP presidential candidate Arnold Vinick (Alan Alda) opted to give a marathon press conference after news emerged that he had supported a nuclear facility that had almost melted down.
It’s not hard to imagine that Ms. Ferraro was close to Mr. O’Donnell’s mind when he penned the episode.
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