Why media relationships matter

January 17, 2017 Kathryn Cramer Brownell
Robert Moore, White House Photo Office

Governing demands an effective, multifaceted, and highly organized communication strategy. “Do more with less” advises Anita Dunn in her First Year essay. The rapidly changing media landscape offers both an opportunity and a challenge for President-elect Donald Trump. Given the innovations launched by his campaign on Twitter, the reality t.v. star-turned-president seems to have already capitalized on Dunn’s recommendation to “be an early adapter of new technologies,” and especially to “go where your audience is.”

While taking advantage of new outlets may expand the president’s message, Trump must also establish a relationship with the mainstream media, members of whom he has repeatedly demonized and attacked. As president, it is necessary to have a working relationship with figures from the news and entertainment industries. History reveals that continually circumventing and attacking the press may help win points on the campaign trail, but this strategy creates a hostile environment in which it is difficult to govern as president.

As Dunn notes, “winning the White House provides a great moment to push ‘reset’” after an adversarial campaign between the president-elect and the press. Though Trump initially benefited from the free exposure he received on cable news shows and late night entertainment, the final months of his campaign were characterized by his persistent accusations of media bias, assaults on popular entertainment shows such as Saturday Night Live, and chants of “CNN sucks” at rallies. Bitterness between the two has continued to define the transition period.

Like his Republican predecessor, Richard Nixon, Trump has bullied and threatened journalists. As president, Nixon compiled an official “Enemies List,” on which journalists had a prominent place. He used all the power at his disposal—IRS audits, FBI investigations, wiretapping, exclusion from the press plane, and even efforts to censor stories—to harass his critics. But, this strategy backfired for Nixon. Strong-arming the press made journalists suspicious of his administration. More significantly, it also provided a long list of examples that, when compiled, contributed to the litany of abuses of power that forced Nixon to resign.

Nixon waged a war on the press that he ultimately lost. His Republican successor, however, charmed his way into being the “Great Communicator.” Ronald Reagan’s effective communications strategy did not just build on his acting talents or Mike Deaver’s penchant for using powerful visuals. It also centered on his ability to win over the press corps in his first year in office. As a result, those same individuals wrote stories about the actor-turned-president’s effective leadership skills.

Reagan and his communications staff developed personal relationships with journalists and frequently discussed the important role the media played in the political process. By making the press a priority in how he governed, Reagan made them like and respect him as a leader. Though at times reporters painted his stances as extreme before the election, Reagan wooed journalists as president—using, flattery, social invitations, and neatly packaged information during press conferences to help them meet their deadlines. This amiable relationship with the press paid dividends in helping him win support from the public and Congress as he slashed budgets for social programs and launched his landmark tax cuts in his first year.

The technological changes that continue to transform the media landscape have brought new challenges for Reagan’s successors. As Dunn notes, President Barack Obama has been effective at expanding the boundaries of the press to include entertainment personalities and online magazines to disseminate his message “where the audience is.” Obama used internet shows like Zach Galifianakis’ Between Two Ferns to promote the Affordable Care Act. He rapped the news with Jimmy Fallon to advocate for student loan legislation, and he walked in the wild with Discovery channel host Bear Grylls to discuss climate change. These appearances targeted a specific demographic, younger voters, and became click-bait entertainment that amused and informed.

Like his successful predecessors, from Franklin Roosevelt to Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, Obama recognized the potential to use entertainment to engage voters as media consumers and cultivated a relationship with the entertainment community to do this. Trump has attacked the celebrity supporters who turned up in massive numbers for his opponent on the campaign trail, preferring instead to focus the spotlight on himself.

And yet, connections with the entertainment industry have historically benefited presidential administrations, particularly in promoting controversial legislation in the first year. For example, studio executive Jack Warner produced short promotional films to promote an array of New Deal legislation and to justify the expansion of executive power that happened under Franklin Roosevelt. Warner went so far as to integrate a scene of Busby Berkeley’s famous chorus girl dancers forming the National Recovery Act’s Blue Eagle during its 1933 theatrical production Footlight Parade. Warner’s political efforts began with a personal connection to the president, and resulted in a variety of motion picture productions that exported confidence in Roosevelt and enthusiasm for his New Deal to moviegoers at the time. Even Richard Nixon followed this precedent and recruited celebrity surrogates—from Sammy Davis Jr. to Charlton Heston—to promote policy issues that ranged from foreign relations with China to economic initiatives at home.

Communication is central to effective governance. Especially following a divisive campaign, gaining favorability with Congress, the press, and the public will not happen overnight. It requires resources, diligence, and commitment by many staffers, as Dunn explains. For the Trump administration, this will necessitate not simply a “reset” on the tensions, but a reversal of his campaign’s message and style to shift from targeting the media as an “enemy” to respecting the significant role that the media and entertainment establishment can play in connecting the president’s message to the public.

Kathryn Cramer Brownell is an assistant professor in American history at Purdue University. Her research and teaching focus on the intersections between media, politics, and popular culture, with a particular emphasis on the American presidency. Her first book, Showbiz Politics: Hollywood in American Political Life, examines the institutionalization of entertainment styles and structures in American politics during the twentieth century. She is now working on a new book project, Republic of Entertainment: Cable Television and the Transformation of American Democracy, which examines the political origins and implications of policy transformation regarding the cable industry from the Nixon administration through the Clinton years.