Tuesday, July 13, 2010
The p.r. genius is Sarah herself
The strategic genius of Sarah Palin.
By Michelle Cottle
Like most great women of mystery, Sarah Palin is at once everywhere and nowhere. On any given evening, you might see the former Alaska governor-turned-conservative-icon on Fox News, chatting up like-minded travelers about the political buzz du jour.
Her byline pops up now and again in the opinion pages (supporting McCain, bashing enviros). She periodically hits the campaign trail with favored candidates. She is a prolific and passionate tweeter. Her Facebook page overflows with thoughts on global events both past (DDay, Reagan’s Brandenburg Gate speech) and present (Israel, border security, the need to drill, baby, drill); news of upcoming appearances (a rally at the Lincoln Memorial with Glenn Beck, a possible U.K. jaunt to meet Margaret Thatcher); the latest media atrocities committed against her; and her rolling endorsements of “commonsense conservative” candidates who tickle her fancy. And, any day now, filming is scheduled to start on the docu-travelogue series in which Palin will “bring the wonder and majesty of Alaska” to TLC viewers.
In the midst of this aggressive visibility, however, Palin keeps a tight grip on her time in the public eye. She rarely sits down with non-conservative interviewers and eschews mix-’em-up formats pitting her viewpoint against that of a more liberal counterpart. More fascinating, she is cautious about her interaction with fellow Republicans. Some of her Facebook endorsements this election cycle have come with telephone outreach to the chosen candidate or, for the fortunate few, even joint appearances. Others come suddenly, with no direct communication at all. More than one campaign learned of Palin’s endorsement only when some staffer or supporter stumbled across it online. There is, for instance, an entertaining video clip of Iowa gubernatorial hopeful Terry Branstad being handed news of his anointment during a June 3 campaign event. Blindsided, Branstad chuckles awkwardly and announces, with evident amazement, “I never expected this! Sarah Palin just endorsed us on Facebook.” (It’s hard to tell from audience members’ explosive laughter whether they are more delighted or appalled for Branstad, a moderate Republican whose endorsement by Palin drew howls of protest from her conservative followers.)
For Republican pols actively angling for Palin’s magic touch, simply attracting the attention of Palinland can prove challenging. There have been smirking media accounts of various Republican primary combatants scrambling for a Palin endorsement or appearance. Before he became infamous for serially exaggerating his résumé Illinois Senate candidate Mark Kirk suffered the indignity of having his make-her-love-me-please memo to Palin pal Fred Malek leaked to the media. Among Republican strategists, there has arisen grumbling about the difficulties in connecting with her people. “Nobody even knows how to get ahold of her. No one knows who to call,” says one. Some campaigns grew so desperate, they took to e-mailing Palin’s Facebook page. (Meanwhile, even among those considered close to Palin, there is some confusion as to who, besides Sarah and Todd, are in-the-know, central players in Palinland.) Grumps the strategist, “The entire Palin organization seems to be the woman, a massive Facebook page, and a ton of TV cameras.”
It’s an unconventional media strategy, to be sure, and not without its drawbacks— namely, bitter party operatives. (“This means that you can’t plan anything!” says the strategist.) Yet it’s hard to deny that Palin’s p.r. approach has not only succeeded but succeeded brilliantly. How? The most obvious element at work here is that Palin operates not as a politician but as a celebrity. “Most politicians can’t get on the cover of People,” sighs another GOP campaign veteran. “She’s on the cover almost every week.” The rules are different for celebrities: Palin’s megawattage enables her to command attention for every word and gesture, even as she largely stiff-arms The New York Times and “Meet the Press.” Similarly, candidates desperate for her endorsement are unlikely to (publicly) whine about whatever attention she dribbles their way, no matter how arbitrary or last-minute.
Of course, unlike other categories of the rich and famous, political celebs (especially populist firebrands) cannot risk being seen as remote or out of touch. But here’s where Palin’s embrace of new media saves the day. Her perky, quirky tweets and chatty Facebook items make her fans feel as though they have a direct line to her—despite the oft-voiced assumption that Palin (like so many pols) does not write most (if any) of her own Facebook posts. Such is the beauty of social networking: It allows a public figure to avoid direct interaction with the public while promoting the illusion of personal connection and involvement. (Continues here)