A Perspective from a Congressman’s Press Team
July 02, 2014
Author: Nick Zarra W’16, C’16
It has been said that the press dictates policy more than the policy-maker. By providing either a positive or negative perspective on an issue, the press can often affect the popular perspective on policy and how policy is brought to fruition. Due to perceived slanted coverage, many of us have heard criticism of various outlets.
In order for an elected representative to make an effective policy, therefore, the representative’s press team must be aware and responsive. I have had the great honor of interning in the Office of Senator Tim Scott (R-SC) this summer and working for Sean Conner, Senator Scott’s press secretary. In many ways, this has been a very exciting time to serve in this office: Senator Scott is in his second year in office, after being appointed to finish former Senator DeMint’s term, and Mr. Conner just recently joined the staff as press secretary in May.
My fellow press intern and I both compile media clips each morning. The other intern, Charles, focuses on press coverage of the Senator in local and national publications; I focus on media clips dealing with main constituent groups and their favored press outlets. The focus on specific groups is to ensure that our office has an accurate understanding of the concerns of the groups, but also so that we understand the perspective that is portrayed. For example, The Post and Courier (South Carolina’s most read newspaper based in Senator Scott’s hometown of Charleston) portrays policy issues differently than FITNews (a popular conservative-libertarian website focusing on South Carolina policy) and South Carolina Village Voices (a weekly newspaper that prides itself as “SC’s #1 source for Urban Media”). By understanding these perspectives, we can more effectively communicate with these groups.
I also have been compiling a book of all published quotes and statements by the Senator since he has taken office in the Senate. For any office, it is important to remain cognizant of past remarks and publicly stated positions, but it is especially crucial for our office as many of these quotes were from the time before Mr. Conner was named press secretary. On a more personal level, this project has allowed me to see the range of the Associated Press (nearly every major outlet in South Carolina uses this syndicated service for Capitol Hill news) and gain a better understanding of the Senator and his positions.
Mr. Conner is really keen on making sure that his interns see the full array of media relations, both from the perspective of the policy-maker, news outlet, and constituent. With this in mind, there are two other ongoing projects with which I deal daily. The first involves tracking the producers of various cable and broadcast news shows and compiling them. While this might be a slightly tedious job, it helps to show the various interconnections that make up television news and allows me to get a better contextual understanding. The second project involves an interview that the press team is currently scheduling with a major news-network based around an upcoming event. For this event, I have researched past interviews and social media postings by the interviewer to identify various common practices.
Ultimately, it is very easy to mischaracterize press matters as tangential or irrelevant to policy matters. My experiences have shed light otherwise. Much of my first few weeks dealt with the current Veterans Affairs scandal, as this has been a controversial issue with constituents calling in to voice their complaints and demanding a response. Senator Sanders and Senator McCain came forward with proposed policies: Senator Sanders’ proposal promoted greater allocations to the VA, while Senator McCain focused primarily on expanding private options for veterans’ care. Mr. Conner sent me to the McCain-Flake-Coburn-Burr press conference on their proposal, and it was there that I realized that so much of the work was done not just by their legislative teams in developing a policy response, but also by the Senators themselves and their press teams in translating legalistic policy into plain English. This is how the Legislative Branch is able to fulfill its mission by both representing their constituents and creating a fair policy response.
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