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Wanted: Media Savvy Tea Party Leaders

We are living in some very interesting times in the Sooner State. 

This past week several Tea Party leaders within Oklahoma were spotlighted by the national media.  Consequently, a few very unflattering stories were run both locally and nationally regarding the Tea Party movement within our state because of comments made by these leaders.  These stories and comments not only created divides amongst organizations, but they have also tarnished the Tea Party movement as a whole as well.

What is disappointing, however, is that all of these controversies could have all been very easily avoided by following a few basic principles in dealing with the media.

In Oklahoma, as is the case around the country, local Tea Party leaders are for the most part very new to the world of politics.  Not only have they never led an organic political movement, most have never dealt with the professional media in this or any capacity.  They are completely green and completely unaware of how the media game is played – especially within the scope of mainstream media outlets. 

This lack of media experience is exactly why print and television journalists are looking to these new leaders for quotes, comments, and to be the basis for stories about the Tea Party movement.  It is no accident or coincidence that professional reporters with years of experience are continually calling on these leaders for interviews or for their perspectives on stories they are contstructing. 

Furthermore, reporters who are hunting for a story or attempting to frame a narrative surely know they can manipulate Tea Party leaders into making outrageous claims and giving controversial quotes.  It is like a NBA franchise playing a junior high JV squad in a basketball game – inexperienced and outmatched Tea Party leaders have no chance if the experienced media member is attempting to play the media game of driving a narrative or exploiting a hot-button issue to benefit their story.

Unfortunately this is exactly what happened this week in Oklahoma.

So what are Tea Party leaders to do?  Avoid the media altogether?  Only speak to “friendly” media outlets?  Or simply barrel ahead with no worry about long term affects of continued media blunders?

At American Majority we train candidates on how to deal with the press in the interview setting.  Needless to say Tea Party leaders would do well to learn a few of these lessons as well.

For example, what folks who rarely deal with the media must first realize is this: Reporters are always looking for a story.  Simply put, Tea Party leaders should do their best not give them one. 

If a reporter calls or shows up and begins asking questions regarding a potentially controversial issue such as militias, abortion, or illegal immigration, a Tea Party leader would be smart to graciously say that their organization is not concerned with such things and avoid making any comment on those subjects altogether. 

It is always much better to actively avoid a controversy rather than unknowingly embrace one.

Secondly, all grassroots leaders must dress as professionally as possible if doing a television appearance or print interview.  No one should make the mistake of walking into an interview setting simply wearing a t-shirt and jeans or other inappropriate attire.  This not only reflects well on the interviewee as a person, but it also makes the interviewer take them more seriously in what they have to say.  Folks being interviewed must give credibility to themselves and their organizations if they want to sustain the momentum of this movement.

And lastly, new folks within the world of politics always need to prepare beforehand for any interview they undertake.  A few simple things to do would be to practice by going through mock interviews, thoroughly study talking points, and mentally prepare to respond well to accusations, attacks, or loaded questions.  These simple preparation tools only take a few minutes but they will reap benefits far down the line.

If grassroots leaders want to make a lasting and long-term impact, they would do well to learn these very easy lessons and avoid the mistakes that are currently being made by others in how they deal with the media scrutiny of being a Tea Party leader. 

Sadly, it only takes one quote or one simple misstep to begin the snowball effect of bad press.  And it cannot be stated enough that nothing brings a movement down faster than not knowing how to play the media game.