Garmisch-Partenkirchen, July 19 (RFE/RL) - Politicians in the former Soviet Union and Central Europe are discovering that democracy requires that they learn a new skill--how to deal with the media.
During a seminar in this Alpine town this past week, American media experts gave tips on how to handle the press to some 70 politicians from Russia, the Ukraine and 14 other former communist countries.
Veteran Washington journalist Warren Nelson, who also served as press secretary to former U.S. Secretary of Defense Les Aspin, told the group that no matter how long they speak or what they say, they would get no more than about 20 seconds of broadcast news coverage. Lesson? Write speeches that make the main point in five seconds.
Sometimes it helps to include a catchy slogan or phrase which can appeal to the reporter and the public. Nelson cited a defense program of former President Ronald Reagan's which became known to most people as simply "Star Wars."
But Nelson warned that sometimes a catchy phrase is not enough to communicate something to the media. The politician needs to be more subtle to ensure that the journalist uses the point he wants him to use. He referred to tactics employed by former U.S.Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird.
"When Laird gave an interview, all he cared about was the 20-second excerpt which would be broadcast on the evening news," Nelson said.
"To the questions he did not care about, he would respond with long-winded sentences packed with bureacratic words which bored the journalists. Sometimes he would lower his head so that cameras did not see his face.
"But when they finally asked a question on the topic he wanted, he would look straight at the camera, smile, and reply with five or six short, crisp sentences packed with punchy, concrete words. He then resorted to dull, uninteresting responses to all remaining questions. Naturally the evening news used the item he wanted."
Nelson gave the politicians more expert advice, as follows:
ON HOW TO PLACE GOOD AND BAD NEWS IN NEWSPAPERS:
Release good or bad news according to the reading habits of the voters and the needs of newspapers, Nelson advised.
"In the United States, we often aim to get the news in the Monday morning newspapers," he said. "Since little news is made on Sundays, newspapers often are desperate for good stories to print in Monday's editions. Your story stands a better chance of being printed on Monday."
U.S. politicians often release bad news on Fridays because families are busy getting ready for the weekend and rarely read the Saturday newspapers thoroughly.
ON HOW TO PERFORM DURING A TV INTERVIEW:
"Never let the interviewer take control," he said. "You must run the interview. Use questions from the interviewer simply as a launching platform for the points you want to make."
ON HOW TO AVOID ANSWERING DIFFICULT QUESTIONS:
Politicians can avoid being precise when answering questions about difficult or embarrassing issues. According to Nelson, answers should generally be concrete and specific. But sometimes being completely honest can be embarrassing or cause offense..
"If you are faced with a difficult political question where any answer is going to cause offense, you should resort to ambiguous answers," he said. "You should not lie--you should never lie. But in some circumstances there is nothing wrong with an answer so ambiguous that it sounds like you support every competing viewpoint."