It’s not easy to irritate the cadre of reporters assigned to cover your campaign for Mayor. But it can be done. Exhibit A is Mary Norwood, the onetime frontrunner in the Atlanta mayor’s race.
On Wednesday, Norwood called a news conference at 4pm, a curiously out-of-context “tribute to veterans.” It was Veterans Day, but it had an odd “let’s state the obvious” quality about it: We love our veterans.
Norwood’s people knew that three of the four local TV stations had newscasts at 4pm or 5pm. The 4pm news conference was a headache, timing-wise, for the TV folks covering it.
Earlier that afternoon, third-place finisher Lisa Borders endorsed Kasim Reed in the runoff. Norwood had lobbied for the same endorsement. Her people knew that reporters were covering the “tribute to veterans” for one reason: To get Norwood’s take on the Borders endorsement.
So here’s how it went down:
Norwood unhelpfully walked into the room downtown at 4:15pm, fifteen minutes late.
With no podium available, TV photogs clipped a bunch of lavaliere mics to Norwood’s jacket. She launched into her veterans appreciation spiel. A half-dozen or so armed forces veterans stood alongside her, mostly silently.
A TV reporter asked a question about the Borders endorsement. Norwood gave a broad, unspecific answer.
Another TV reporter rephrased the question. Norwood rephrased her unspecific answer.
At this point, Norwood’s spokewoman Zee Bradford stepped in front of the candidate and began to abruptly remove the microphones clipped to the candidate. With her back to the cameras, Bradford muttered something about another upcoming event on the schedule.
Another reporter barked a question to Norwood. The candidate awkwardly walked away.
The next day, the Norwood campaign called a news conference to respond to endorsements of Reed by Borders and former Governor Roy Barnes. But as Ernie Suggs reported in the AJC (in a piece headlined “Where is Mary Norwood?”), Norwood was a no-show. Bradford told reporters that Norwood was “out campaigning” Thursday, but couldn’t provide a way to rendezvous with her for a comment. The tension is audible in Odette Yousef’s piece on WABE radio.
Later, the Norwood camp said Norwood was actually shooting a campaign commercial Thursday.
Norwood’s week wasn’t as bad as it had seemed. The Borders endorsement of Kasim Reed hadn’t helped. But it wasn’t a surprise. (There was a similar endorsement in the last mayoral race in 1997; third place finisher Gloria Bromell-Tinubu endorsed second-place finisher Marvin Arrington. Bill Campbell still won the runoff.) The Roy Barnes’ endorsement wasn’t much of a surprise either.
The surprise was the campaign’s ability to foul its relations with the media by overlooking some simple tenets of courtesy: Show up on time, answer the questions, respect deadlines, don’t bait-and-switch with a news conference featuring an absent candidate. And don’t mislead when asked about her absence.
Kasim Reed’s campaign is getting this stuff right. Lisa Borders’ campaign got it right.
Some politicians provoke and feed on media hostility. Bill Campbell did it. House Speaker Glenn Richardson does it, to some extent.
Likewise, I recognize that campaigns don’t exist for the convenience of the news media.
On the other hand, Mary Norwood’s history has always been one of accessibility and courtesy. One-on-one, she’s engaging, humorous and personable. Given an opportunity, Norwood will chat with a reporter until the reporter runs out of questions. This happened Monday when, with campaign manager Roman Levitt’s help, I talked with Norwood outside of City Hall. She had no handlers present.
Unprovoked, she expressed regrets about the previous week’s media mismanagement. “I wish the staff would have handled that differently,” she said. A sucker for honesty, I felt sympathy for her. She’s in the political fight of her life. A WXIA poll released Monday showed that her commanding lead has disappeared.
Norwood’s week hadn’t been great. Her communications staff had made it much, much worse.