Sara Macintyre, Communications Director for BC Premier Christy Clark, is now more famous than her boss in large tracts of Canada.
Macintyre’s heated exchange with the BC provincial press (if you haven’t seen it, click here for the clip) has led most major outlets in BC to run stories excoriating her, and has produced a number of scathing national media hits. One outraged journo dubbed her “Canada’s Newest TV Villain” – a bit much.
It goes further. Perfectly on cue, a legion of Public Relations experts and media trainers have emerged to comment on Macintyre’s folly. Writing in PR Daily, Brad Phillips ripped her for everything from “forgetting who her audience was,” to “chewing gum.”
While it’s hard to countenance Macintyre’s actions, there are interesting macro lessons at play in this and other episodes like it.
First, in recent years, prominent right-wing politicians from George W. Bush to Stephen Harper have treated media with utter contempt and given them very limited access. While there is no doubt this has bred serious acrimony with the fourth estate, in no discernible way has it had any impact on the bottom line of either politician. Bush, though broadly panned for his controlled approach to media relations, was a two term President (i.e. – in this era he had a successful electoral career). Harper negotiated minority Parliaments for over five years and then won a majority – hardly a small achievement.
In politics today, it seems that you can treat media like dogs and win. That was not, I’d wager, as true in the past.
From a media relations perspective, people like Sara Macintyre have made a very particular calculation: the political media needs access to leaders more than leaders need the press.
Politics is one of the only realms of PR where this notion holds with any strength.
If I told people who cover consumer technology that my tech clients were “not taking questions today,” the journalists would laugh (or worse) and go cover any of the two hundred other companies vying for their attention. In this dynamic, I and my clients need the media as much, or more, as the media needs us, ergo we have to make like adults, not angry, petulant children. The situation is true the vast majority of the time a PR pro and a journalist deal with each other.
I’m not recommending that my fellow PR practitioners – whether in politics or other realms – behave in gratuitously provocative ways like my former colleague did (Macintyre and I worked together in Harper’s Office in the early 2000’s). No doubt, she has broken a cardinal rule about “the story being about her, not her boss.”
However, rather than jump on the bandwagon of hacks and PR experts attacking Sara Macintyre, we should understand that her actions are rooted in a logic about political media relations that is supported by some evidence over the last decade.
Look closer at this. Maybe the media are just being human and reacting to rude treatment. Maybe, as Macintyre, Bush and Harper might argue, they’re angry about the painful truth that they matter less than ever. As for the PR experts, maybe they’re just excited by the chance to flex their bona fides.
In the end, there is little to suggest Christy Clark (or her electoral bottom line) is going to suffer.