Yes Or No, Congressman: Will You Give Up Your Paycheck?

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on October 6, 2013 – 6:02 am

Several years ago, I consulted with a major organization regarding a brewing crisis.

My contact—the head of communications—asked me to review the situation and give her my best communications advice. When she called the next day to ask what I had come up with, I uttered two lines that made her gasp: “You don’t have a communications problem. You have a policy problem.” Until her organization’s policy was changed, I said, communications couldn’t solve her problem.

I thought of that story when I saw several members of Congress fumbling a question they should have seen coming from a mile away: “Since federal workers aren’t getting paid, will you give up your paycheck?”

As an example, take a look at this interview from CNN with Reps. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) and Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA):


Rep. Lee Terry (R-NE) told the Omaha World Herald: “I’ve got a nice house and a kid in college, and I’ll tell you we cannot handle it. Giving our paycheck away when you still worked and earned it? That’s just not going to fly.”

Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-NC), according to The Huffington Post, said: “I think every American should get paid for his or her labor…That includes members of Congress. I didn’t create the shutdown.”

Rep. Renee Ellmers (R-NC) told WTVD-TV: “I need my paycheck. That’s the bottom line.”

According to The Washington Post, at least 137 members of Congress have agreed to donate or refuse their salaries. But that leaves roughly 400 members who are pocketing their paychecks as 800,000 federal workers—and countless other people affected by the shutdown—are unable to pocket theirs.

(On Saturday, the House voted to pay federal workers retroactively when the shutdown ends; that does little to help anxious workers living paycheck to paycheck in the short term.)

This isn’t a communications problem. It’s a policy problem.

There’s no way a communications professional can message this problem successfully. When the people widely perceived as causing the problem are continuing to live their own financial lives unaffected by the shutdown, no amount of spin can help them out of the corner they placed themselves in.


These members of Congress remind me of the late hotelier Leona Helmsley, who allegedly quipped: “We don’t pay taxes. Only the little people pay taxes.”


There was an easy way around this.

My personal view is that no member of Congress should be allowed to receive a paycheck during a government shutdown by statute. In lieu of that, they should suspend their own pay or donate it, in full, to charity.

All of that aside, here’s what’s mind-boggling: If this shutdown lasts for two weeks, that represents just under four percent of their pay. If they normally donate four percent or more of their salaries to charity every year anyway, their decision should have been a no-brainer: donate the money they would normally give to charity out of the money they lost during the period of the shutdown.

Doing so would have allowed them to avoid the negative publicity without costing them an extra penny. But the thing is, they weren’t even smart enough to do that. Instead, they publicly insisted on living under their own privileged set of rules and keeping every bit of the taxpayers’ money they felt entitled to.

No wonder Congress has a 10 percent approval rating.

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a grateful h/t to: Political Wire, Huffington Post, Washington Post, reader Ken Molay

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President Obama’s Latest Syria Surprise

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on September 1, 2013 – 8:33 pm

“We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus.” – President Barack Obama, August 2012

With those comments—now known as Obama’s “Red Line” remarks—President Obama appeared to remove any ambiguity about his foreign policy. If Syrian President Bashar Hafez al-Assad uses chemical weapons, he seemed to say, we will respond.

Obama’s advisers were surprised by his choice of words. According to a May New York Times article, the phase “red line” was used “…to the surprise of some of the advisers who had attended the weekend meetings and wondered where the ‘red line’ came from. With such an evocative phrase, the president had defined his policy in a way some advisers wish they could take back.”

President Obama Press Conference 2011

His phrase was a classic seven-second stray, albeit one with greater consequences than most. It was unscripted and unplanned, memorable and definite. With those words, Mr. Obama placed himself in a geopolitical box, reducing his number of palatable options.

Fast forward a year to last Friday, when Secretary of State John Kerry offered a rather unambiguous statement: “After a decade of conflict, the American people are tired of war,” Kerry said. “Believe me, I am, too. But fatigue does not absolve us of our responsibility.”

With those words, Kerry sent a strong message on behalf of the Administration: The red line has been crossed, and the United States is prepared to act. Kerry’s message was so clear, in fact, that Saturday’s media coverage reflected the inevitability of military strikes.


Washington Post Syria Front Page


But then on Saturday afternoon, President Obama changed his mind—or “flinched,” as some pundits called it. During a walk with his chief of staff the evening before (and after Great Britain’s parliament voted down military action), Obama changed his plan. Before ordering military strikes, he would ask Congress to authorize military action against Syria.

His abrupt about-face surprised his senior team once again, confused and angered allies, and potentially emboldened opponents.

Mr. Obama’s handling of this issue leaves him in a dangerous place. If Congress fails to authorize military action, President Obama will either have to follow through on his “red line” threat without legislative approval or respect Congress’s “no” vote and break his promise. If Congress does authorize military action, he may be forced to engage in a military action he appears to be at least somewhat ambivalent about.

To be clear, I’m not criticizing Mr. Obama’s end point. Consulting with Congress might have been the right move all along. But by telegraphing something entirely different—only to change his mind at the last minute—he risks looking indecisive, at best, if not outright rudderless.

What do you think? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.

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This Post May Be Too Complex For You

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on August 28, 2013 – 8:22 pm

When North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory spoke to an Asheville business group on Monday, he decided to take a shot at the journalists who cover state government.

Defending his economic record to the Council of Independent Business Owners, Mr. McCrory made the following comment, which provoked laughter from the friendly crowd:

“This is too complex for the journalists. They don’t have economics degrees. They’ve not been in business.”

Pat McCrory

That’s the type of unextraordinary anti-media comment politicians make all the time. They’re pieces of red meat that serve as reliable crowd pleasers, particularly for conservative politicians who score points with audiences for running against the mainstream media.

But in this case, a local political reporter decided to get the last laugh. Mark Binker, a reporter for Raleigh-Durham’s WRAL, wrote a cheeky piece for the @NCCapitol website titled “This post may be ‘too complex’ for us to write.” 

Binker waits until his closing lines to exact his full revenge against Governor McCrory:

“It may be worth noting that McCrory’s campaign website says he graduated from ‘Catawba College in Rowan County, where he earned degrees in Education and Political Science.’ There’s no mention of an economics degree.”

Ouch. So, is it a bad idea to knock the media in this manner?

Yes and no. As I’ve written before, the expression “Never argue with a man who buys ink by the barrel” no longer fully applies in the age of social media. Today’s politicians are less dependent on the mainstream press than their predecessors, and can reach their audiences using alternative communications channels.

That’s not to suggest that picking gratuitous fights with the press is wise strategy, but I’d still modify that old expression to “Think hard before arguing with a man who buys ink by the barrel.”

If McCrory made these comments as part of a pre-planned and deliberate messaging strategy, it may have been worth the risk. But if these lines were improvised, he earned a small bit of embarrassing press he could have easily avoided.

A grateful tip of the hat to reader Mike Radionchenko; photo credits Hal Goodtree, Capitol Broadcasting Company

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Anthony Weiner’s New York Times Interview: Did His PR Work?

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on April 10, 2013 – 12:47 pm

This morning, Anthony Weiner’s attempt at a comeback began with a high-profile cover story in The New York Times Magazine.

It’s a fascinating story worth a full read, but one line in the lengthy article is garnering the most attention: “At breakfast, Weiner quickly put all the speculation to rest: he is eyeing the [New York City] mayor’s race.”

Personally, I don’t believe that Mr. Weiner has any place in public life. Not only did he exercise ludicrous judgment by sending lewd texts to strangers—but his deeds came with a hefty price, turning a reliably Democratic district red (his district voted for a Republican to replace him; the district turned blue again earlier this year).

Regardless of my personal feelings about Mr. Weiner, my goal in this post is to analyze the effectiveness (or lack thereof) of his first detailed public confessional from a PR perspective.

Let’s start with the good. In some ways, Mr. Weiner appears to “get it” and displays remorse—particularly regarding how his behavior affected his wife, Huma Abedin (a top aide to Hillary Clinton). The reporter noted two times when Weiner cried during the interview; in once incident, she recounted:

“He paused and took a deep breath and started to cry. ‘She’s given. . . .’ He stopped again, could barely get the words out. ‘She’s given me another chance. And I am very grateful for that. And I’m trying to make sure I get it right.’

Weiner says he’s been in therapy since resigning his post, and he seems to be making a real effort at both understanding and modifying his behavior.

He also benefits from his wife’s forgiveness. Unlike other spurned political wives who have famously stood by their men at press conferences during their moments of humiliation, Ms. Abedin didn’t. But she willingly participated in this interview, titled “Anthony Weiner and Huma Abedin’s Post-Scandal Playbook.” If they didn’t look like a solid team two years ago, they sure do now.

But in many other ways, Weiner strikes me as a man who is still very much in the process of trying to figure things out—and who still has a long way to go.

I’ve been right in making those types of judgments about Weiner before. On June 2, 2011—in the early days of the Weiner scandal—I wrote on this blog, “I can’t shake the feeling that his actions are consistent with those of a man who doesn’t want his wife to learn what he’s been up to.” In this interview, Weiner confirmed my analysis, saying, “I lied to her. The lies to everyone else were primarily because I wanted to keep it from her.”

The photo that made Anthony Weiner infamous


Weiner blames his reckless behavior on his need to be liked, saying:

“’There just wasn’t much of me who was smart enough, sensitive enough, in touch with my own things, understanding enough about the disrespect and how dishonorable it was to be doing that. It didn’t seem to occupy a real space in my feelings…‘I wasn’t really thinking. What does this mean that I’m doing this? Is this risky behavior? Is this smart behavior? To me, it was just another way to feed this notion that I want to be liked and admired.’”

That quote, in addition to others, leaves me with the inescapable conclusion that he’s still trying to figure it all out. On a human level, that’s appropriate, and I respect that he’s doing some hard work in therapy. But on a political level, that’s just not good enough. Until he can more accurately diagnose and account for his own motivations, he’s not ready to be entrusted with the second act the public so often grants to politicians.

Plus, there’s this “pass the buck” gem, about Twitter:

“If it wasn’t 2011 and it didn’t exist, it’s not like I would have gone out cruising bars or something like that. It was just something that technology made possible and it became possible for me to do stupid things. I mean, the thing I did, and the damage that I did, not only hadn’t it been done before, but it wasn’t possible to do it before.”

So without Twitter, his reckless behavior wouldn’t have emerged in other ways? Unlikely.

Then again, a potential run for NYC mayor may not be about trying to win the race. As one pundit said:

“Is this about winning?” asks the political adviser. “Or is this an attempt to get the scandal off the books? Then the next time he runs for something, he can say: ‘You know what? We talked about that last time. Aren’t we beyond that?’

And that might be the most brilliant PR strategy of all.

What do you think? Can Anthony Weiner’s political career be resurrected? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.

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What Do Political Reporters Want?

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on December 4, 2012 – 6:02 am

I’ve spent the past two years following politics more closely than most other people.

I’ve watched and written about every Republican primary debate (20 in all), both political conventions, and the three presidential debates. I’ve read hundreds of polls. I’ve spent hundreds of hours on Twitter following the latest political news and gossip shared by Washington reporters.

And after investing all of those hours in the 2012 election, I’m left with one unanswered question: Are the political press making life impossible for political candidates by demanding two almost completely incompatible traits?

On one hand, the political press reward authenticity, knocking candidates who don’t live up to their standards of “authentic.” They mocked Mitt Romney’s awkward attempts at playing the common man, such as when he told a group of unemployed voters that he, too, was unemployed. In earlier elections, they scoffed as John Edwards, an advocate for people in poverty, paid $400 for a haircut, just as they laughed at the patrician John Kerry for going duck hunting shortly before the 2004 election.

Politicians viewed as more authentic, meanwhile, make the political press swoon. Think about the fawning coverage John McCain earned during his first presidential run in 2000 while speaking to reporters on his bus, “The Straight Talk Express.” Or the admiring coverage the self-possessed Barack Obama received in 2008.

But on the other hand, the political press spills barrels of ink on every “gaffe” committed by a politician or candidate. I’m not talking here about a particularly stupid remark that deservedly ends a political career (think “legitimate rape” or “Macaca”), but the types of gaffes (“I like being able to fire people,” “If you have a business, you didn’t build that”) that receive days’ worth of coverage, knocking the candidates who say them badly off script.

So which is it? Do the press want candidates to be authentic, meaning that candidates will be more “real” but occasionally imprecise, or do they place a higher value on candidates who avoid gaffes, even if it means they appear more scripted?

Whether it’s reasonable or not, they clearly want both. And as a result, that means that candidates have to perform a high-wire act that few human beings—never mind politicians—can live up to.

Think it’s easy? Imagine trying to be truly yourself while discussing policy and having cameras capture every public moment over a two-year period. Do you think you could avoid saying anything embarrassing during that time, when you’re not only stressed but suffering from chronic sleep deprivation?

As a media trainer, I place a high value on authenticity. I wish public figures could live a life without being so constantly on guard. But in a media environment in which a single media moment is all it takes to destroy a career, I’d be committing professional malpractice if I didn’t teach spokespersons how to avoid such gaffes.

Oftentimes, that means they need to show a little less of themselves and stick to their talking points.

And that’s a shame for all of us.

This post originally ran on the Politix website.  Brad Phillips is author of the forthcoming book The Media Training Bible: 101 Things You Absolutely, Positively Need to Know Before Your Next Interview.

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The Right Speech Formula For Winning Political Campaigns

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on July 22, 2012 – 11:13 am

Editor’s Note: Today’s guest post was written by Ben Donahower, an experienced campaign operative and award-winning Toastmaster.

Politicians – and their campaigns – too often overlook their audiences. But campaigns that strategically think about to whom the candidate is speaking, and when, get the most value out of political speeches. So how should candidates plan their speeches throughout a campaign?

The best game plan for political speeches follows the campaign plan. Winning campaign plans start with voter outreach among likely supporters, transition to neutral voters, and finally return to the candidate’s base.

Political speeches should follow the same pattern because they reinforce campaign phone banks and canvasses and because it’s a formula for giving the right speech, at the right time, when the candidate has the right skills.


A persuasive speech takes time. Candidates can use friendly audiences as a proving ground for introductions, key points, conclusions, and more subtle elements of a stump speech. A candidate’s base is a forgiving audience, so it’s a perfect group to experiment on without fear of the political consequences.


Timing is critical on a political campaign. Campaigns should use early speeches to define the candidate and the opponent, and to detail the policies that the candidate will focus on or implement when elected. Unlike the persuasive speeches given to undecided voters over the course of most of the campaign, these early speeches are best suited for voters sympathetic to the cause. As Election Day approaches, the message on the stump changes to getting out the vote. Who is the candidate speaking to when the message is to show up at the polls on Election Day? Supporters, of course!


Public speaking skills come with practice, and practice comes in two forms: preparation and delivery. This audience strategy helps reinforce public speaking skills like these: Brevity: All other things being equal, a short speech is better than a long speech. Candidates are often speaking at events where they are one of many speakers. In these cases, it’s especially important to be respectful of the time allotted and voters will thank you for it! Speech speed: Early political speeches from candidates usually have a dangerous combination of nervousness and enthusiasm, which manifests itself in very fast speeches. These tips on handling a fear of public speaking will help slow candidates down and so will practicing pauses. The most important the point, the longer the pause. Storytelling: The single most important technique to engage the audience in a stump speech is to tell a story, especially about an individual. Stories are incredibly persuasive without having to speak in terms that alienate people, they are memorable, and they imply more than the sum of the words.


Finally, if there is one thing that can throw a wrench in a speech, it’s nerves. Speech-destroying nervousness is relative to the size and type of the audience. Sequentially speaking to supporters, then undecideds, and back to supporters prepares candidates for gradually more nerve racking audiences while complementing the field plan and other moving parts of the campaign.

Ben Donahower is an experienced campaign operative and award-winning Toastmaster. Connect with Ben on his website, Campaign Trail Yard Signs.

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10 Questions Every Candidate Should Be Ready To Answer

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on May 15, 2012 – 6:10 am

Rep. Rick Berg, a candidate for North Dakota’s open Senate seat, was recently asked a straightforward question: “What’s the state’s minimum wage?” He didn’t know the answer – and he’s far from alone.

The Huffington Post points out that four candidates at a recent Senate debate in Missouri also didn’t know the minimum wage. And that’s surprising, considering that this is a perennial question that trips up candidates in virtually every election cycle.

So today, I’m offering all campaigns and candidates a free prep sheet to help them avoid these obvious errors.

Here are ten questions you should be prepared to answer during your race:

1. What’s the Minimum Wage? The federal minimum wage is $7.25. Some states are higher. The full list is here. Candidates should also be able to answer similar questions about their state’s unemployment and home foreclosure rates. Here’s Rep. Berg’s attempt at answering the minimum wage question:

2. What’s the Price of Milk? Reporters ask these types of questions to gauge how much a candidate understands the struggles of “real” Americans. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a gallon costs $3.50. (A handy list of other product costs is here.)

3. What’s the Price of Bread? The average price of a loaf of white bread is $1.40.

4. How Much Is a Gallon Of Gas? The national average for a gallon of unleaded regular gas is $3.87. That’s up from $3.55 last year, $2.78 in 2010, and $1.95 in 2009. Candidates can accurately say that the price has doubled in the past three years. Also know your state/local gas price averages.

5. Why Do You Want to Be a Congressman/Senator/Governor? You’d be surprised how many people blow this simple question. In fact, that very question derailed Ted Kennedy’s presidential bid in 1980.

6. What Mistake(s) Have You Made, And What Have You Learned From It (Them)? This question is sometimes intended as a “gotcha,” but can be a perfect opportunity for candidates to explain a position change.  

7. Who Is Your Favorite Supreme Court Justice of All Time, and Why? Candidates should also be able to name a decision they agreed with and one they disagreed with. In recent years, these types of questions have tripped up both Christine O’Donnell and Sarah Palin.

8. When Is The Last Time The (Local Sports Team) Won The Championship/Pennant/World Series/Stanley Cup? During a Democratic debate for Massachusetts Senate late last year, four candidates, including Elizabeth Warren, couldn’t list the years their beloved Boston Red Sox had won the World Series in this century. Candidates should also have similar answers ready for local college teams, and should be able to name their favorite players, as well.

9. Who Is Your Personal Hero? This is a cliché question which typically elicits cliché answers. But unless Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, or Eleanor Roosevelt are really your personal heroes, try to come up with something more original – and more revealing about who you are and what moves you.

10. What Newspapers Do You Read? After Sarah Palin’s disastrous handling of this question from Katie Couric, other candidates can expect similar questions. Be ready to name your favorite journalists,  newspapers, radio stations, news programs, and websites.

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Eight Famous Presidential Visits To Late Night TV (Video)

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on April 26, 2012 – 6:12 am

President Obama appeared on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon Tuesday night and participated in a recurring bit called “Slow Jamming The News.”

Almost immediately, conservatives began attacking the President’s appearance as un-presidential.

Fox and Friends host Gretchen Carlson, for example, called his appearance “nutso,” and said, “I personally do not agree with the highest office of the land, the most important figure in the world going on these comedy shows. I think it lowers the status of the office.”

Is she right? Do these types of appearances lower the status of the office? First, watch the clip below to decide for yourself whether this skit went too far:

Ms. Carlson is right that this is all very new: President Obama is the first U.S. president to appear on a late night television comedy program during his presidency. But late night appearances are almost de rigueur for presidential or vice presidential candidates these days – and have been for more than a half-century. Here are seven examples of candidate appearances on comedy programs:

June 16, 1960: Senator John F. Kennedy appears on Jack Parr’s Tonight Show:


1968: Richard Nixon delivers a signature line on Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In:


March 13, 1975: Ronald Reagan appears on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson (although he was not a candidate at the time, he announced his candidacy for the 1976 race months later)


1992: Bill Clinton plays sax on The Arsenio Hall Show:


2000: George W. Bush delivers a Top Ten list on Late Night with David Letterman:



2008: Republican Vice Presidential nominee Sarah Palin raps on Saturday Night Live (presidential nominees Barack Obama and John McCain also appeared on different episodes)


March 2012: Mitt Romney appears on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno:


Candidates regularly appear on late night comedy shows to display their “human” sides and to appeal to younger voters. It’s often a smart political decision, since many independent voters base their decisions primarily on personal factors, not policy or ideological ones.

Ms. Carlson’s angst may be legitimate, and it’s fair to argue that the President should uphold a certain level of dignity. But I couldn’t find any evidence that Ms. Carlson spoke out against Mr. McCain’s or Ms. Palin’s appearances on Saturday Night Live in 2008. In fact, her weekend counterparts at the time called Sarah Palin’s appearance on the show – the one in which she “raised the roof” during a ludicrous rap – “hilarious,” “great,” and “clever.”

Is Carlson’s line really that it’s fine for a Republican or Democratic nominee to appear on these shows, but not the sitting president? It’s her right to believe that, but I see it as a distinction without a difference. If anything, it seems to me that a presidential aspirant has to work harder to be seen as presidential than the incumbent.

The debate, therefore, is somewhat predictable, with pundits on both sides playing a set role and performing set lines, as if on cue. Appearances on late night comedy programs are good if the pundit likes the candidate, and bad if they don’t.

To answer the question posed by this post, President Obama definitely explored new turf in his appearance. But Americans are used to people in power appearing on these shows – candidates Kennedy, Nixon, Reagan, Clinton, and Bush (and others) paved the way – and Mr. Obama’s appearance is a logical continuation of that tradition.


President Obama appears on Late Night With David Letterman in September 2012


An increasingly diffuse audience means that politicians have to use different means to reach their targets. And President Obama was perfectly on message. I think this appearance was on the right side of the line, if only barely. But expect to see a lot more of them from future presidents.

What do you think? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.

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  • About Mr. Media Training

    The Mr. Media Training Blog offers daily tips to help readers become better media spokespersons and public speakers. It also examines how well (or poorly) public figures are communicating through the media.

    Brad Phillips is the Founder and Managing Editor of the Mr. Media Training Blog. He is the president of Phillips Media Relations, a media and presentation training firm with offices in NYC and DC.

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    Before founding Phillips Media Relations in 2004, Brad worked as a journalist with ABC's Nightline with Ted Koppel and CNN's Reliable Sources and The Capital Gang.

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