Recapturing the Reagan-Deaver Legacy

Over the weekend, Michael Deaver, the PR strategist and campaign manager known best for his work for Ronald Reagan passed away. John Fund has a nice tribute in today's OpinionJournal that focuses on Deaver's innovative work, beginning during the time Reagan was governor of California.

When Reagan became president, Deaver continued to innovate, arranging such cinematic settings as the famous "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall" moment and finding out ways to get around the endemic liberal bias inherent in most of the elite press corps.

Where is that innovative spirit today within the conservative movement?

Sure, people like Karl Rove and some of the other Bush staff have been innovative--but only in an electioneering way, forever winnowing America into increasingly smaller demographic groups and not trying to appeal to us as a whole. You can't fault Rove for that. Campaign managers are supposed to find out who the key swing demos are and know how to appeal to them.

Who you can fault is today's Republican messaging machine which has learned all the wrong lessons from the Reagan era.

One of the most important things Reagan practiced in the art of public relations was to ignore the opinions of the liberal media. Today's GOP has learned that lesson well but has forgotten its important corollary: While left-wing journalists shouldn't be taken seriously from a policy perspective, they should be taken seriously from a communications perspective.

That may seem like a simple point but actually it isn't.

One of the things that Deaver and others in the Reagan White House were famous for was their ability to bypass the mainstream media by giving news scoops to local outlets or conducting interviews with lesser-known media organizations. That strategy worked well for them and was an innovative idea back then. It no longer is today.

In today's media world, reaching out to talk radio and local television is the minimum standard. Today's alternative media didn't even exist when Reagan was president. If blogs, online communities, file sharing services, YouTube, and Wikipedia existed then, you can bet that Mike Deaver and the rest would have mastered them--and the left would have whined and complained about being bested yet again. That isn't what we have today. For the most part, we have a political elite class that has its head in the sand technologically--blithely ignorant of the power and multifarious nature of the blog world, unwilling to engage the YouTube generation.

Not everyone on the right is similarly ignorant about the power of the new media. I've run into a small-but-growing number of people who think that yes, having a blog is good and posting things on YouTube is important. They balk, however, when it comes to investing the time, money, personnel, and thought into making such outreach efforts effective. Simply "having a blog" is not enough in today's political world. Sending press releases to bloggers is not enough. These things are but a small part of a comprehensive modern communications strategy which sees blogs as both media entities in and of themselves but also as members of the conservative grassroots. As such, you cannot treat them like you would supporters but neither can you treat them like you would a member of the liberal press.

An effective online communication strategy also includes grasping what the point of having a blog really is. It's not simply to exist. Thinking that once you have some sort of blog on the internet that you're finished with your online efforts is a mistake because unless people are reading it, you're blogging into a void. Effective new media means recalibrating your media strategy to not only beating the media but also becoming the media. We've proven here at NewsBusters that with enough time and effort, you can start a major blog in a short amount of time. That success can be duplicated by any policy or political group with enough vision and commitment to recapture the Reagan-Deaver legacy.

Campaigns & Elections History Michael Deaver
Matthew Sheffield's picture