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Opinion: Memo to Guadagno — Taking Reporters’ Questions is the Best Policy

The newly minted gubernatorial candidate needs to learn a basic truth: Talk to the press or give the press something to talk about

carl golden
Carl Golden

Now that Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno has ended what little suspense existed regarding plans for her political future, her attention will focus on the conventional wisdom about her gubernatorial candidacy — success depends on putting distance between herself and an administration whose policy agenda she’s supported for the better part of the last seven years.

It’s not impossible, certainly, but it will be difficult.

She’s already taken a few steps away from Gov. Chris Christie, opposing the gasoline tax increase and refusing to support the presidential candidacy of Donald Trump, for instance, but a cleaner break will be necessary as the campaign unfolds.

She must shed the “Christie’s second in command” image and concentrate on establishing an independence of thought and deed to set herself apart not only from the administration record but also from the aura of scandal and misbehavior that has consumed it for the past three years.

If her announcement event is any indication, she whiffed on her first opportunity to achieve that goal.

While she uttered some barbed comments about Christie — although not by name — her post-announcement failure to take questions from the assembled press corps was an easily avoidable rookie mistake.

Spending 15 or 20 minutes answering reporters’ questions in a relaxed, informal setting would have given her the opportunity to continue to emphasize her message — I’m seeking a first Guadagno term, not a third Christie term.

By standing up the reporters, the desired storyline of the day — I’m running for governor — shared the coverage with her decision to ignore them.

In the trade, it’s called “stepping on your own story,” allowing what should have been a nonissue to achieve equal or even dominating space with the original intent.

Granted, she’s stood in Christie’s shadow since 2010, limiting her exposure to the media and her significant interaction with it.

In that context and against the background of rigid control of her public appearances by the administration, a run for governor is like a first-time spacewalk — you’re out there all alone, reaching decisions of significant consequence and calling on your own instincts to navigate the environment safely.

To be sure, the media has undergone a sea change in the past decade, shifting away from the traditional ballpoint pen and notebook crowd to outlets with strange-sounding names like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, YouTube.

The temptation is nearly irresistible for candidates and their staffs — many of whom don’t believe the names are strange because they grew up with them — to rely on social media to communicate with voters.

It gives them a comfort level because they can control the message without subjecting it to a reporter’s filter. While control is always an issue for campaigns, it can lure its adherents into believing that it is the only issue in dealing with the media and that it gives them a total and unshakeable grip on the coverage.

It produces a false sense of security and a euphoria that the coverage is always favorable because they are dictating it.

Despite its well-documented economic woes, the print media is still a powerful force in New Jersey’s political life. It remains, for many, the primary source of information.

Those who rely on it view social media for what it too often is — shallow, self-serving, ill-informed and factually suspect. It is a form of communication that does not lend itself to in-depth reporting (140 characters is shallow by any definition), nor does it make room for nuance and interpretation of complex policy issues. It is, for many, the McDonaldization of news.

Make no mistake, though, its utilization does serve a purpose. Trump has raised Twitter to an art form, even if it’s at 3 a.m., and the print media eagerly follows his tweets, expanding on them in an often critical way.

Guadagno’s decision to avoid the press after her announcement is by no means a fatal error. A mistake? Yes. A mortal self-inflicted wound? Not likely.

There is ample time and ample opportunity in front of her to demonstrate an openness to the press, a willingness to engage reporters in the verbal jousting common to campaigns. Heck, she may even come to enjoy it.

Existing in a bubble only results in reporters’ writing that she’s existing in a bubble.

She’s entitled to a rookie mistake, but she’s in the big leagues now and one is all you’re allowed.

So, Kim, mix it up, be feisty, argue with reporters, and show toughness. But for heaven’s sake, talk to them. They’ll understand — and write — that you’re stepping further away from Christie and his policies. That’s worth it.

Carl Golden served as press secretary for Republican Gov. Thomas Kean for eight years and as communications director for Republican Gov. Christie Whitman for three years. He is currently a senior contributing analyst with the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at Stockton University.

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