Doug Heye, a Republican consultant and frequent face on cable television news, got his big break on the small screen by accident. In late 2006, after lunching with his friend, Fox News Channel chief political correspondent Carl Cameron, Heye walked Cameron back to his office. Much to Heye’s surprise, they stopped by the network’s booking desk, and he found himself being promoted as a potential guest.
“He said, ‘This is Doug. Put him on,’” recalls Heye. Two days later, the Fox bookers invited him to appear on a segment about the presidential primaries. Just a few years later, Heye estimates he’s been on Fox more than 150 times. In the meantime, many other networks, including CNN and MSNBC, have invited him to appear as well.
Heye’s trajectory from novice to ace television pundit is far from unusual. Once he proved himself on camera, the bookers went back to him for another round, and eventually competing channels came calling, too. But for political consultants trying to get on cable television for the first time, the biggest challenge is getting your foot in the door. While pitching yourself for cable television shows is not an exact science, there are better and worse ways to deal with television bookers. Most importantly, it’s vital that you perform with confidence once on camera so that the bookers keep calling you back.
WHY GO ON TELEVISION?
For political consultants, there are several benefits to appearing on cable news shows. Television appearances can increase your firm’s visibility, boost your credibility with colleagues, and enhance your resume. Mo Elleithee, a Democratic consultant and partner at Hilltop Public Solutions, says that his frequent appearances on cable television shows keep his interview skills sharp—and help spread the word about his relatively young firm. “It’s good for business,” says Elleithee. “You’re always looking for a competitive edge against other consultants, many of whom are friends, so doing these shows, you hope that the occasional potential client might see it and give them a little sense of your ability to deliver them a message.”
Mo Elleithee on MSNBC before the 2008 elections.
However, consultants who offer regular television commentary also warn that their appearances do not necessarily translate into big bucks. Regular commentators from both parties say that appearing on television rarely leads directly to landing a client. “People who haven’t been on often assume that there’s a direct correlation,” says Heye. “There certainly is not. I can tell you the number of clients I got from television appearances: It was exactly one, and it wasn’t a particularly high-paying one.”
Also, keep in mind the cost-benefit ratio of doing television. There’s a significant time commitment involved in appearing on camera, especially if the studio is far from your base. Between travel time, putting on makeup, and waiting for your turn on camera, the average three-minute television hit can eat up anywhere from thirty to ninety minutes of your time—and that’s on top of any time spent preparing for the interview or pitching yourself to bookers. Nonetheless, many consultants find going on television gives them a competitive edge in the market when it comes to pitching themselves to new clients.
MEET THE BOOKERS
Television bookers hold the key to getting on cable television, but reaching them is frequently a challenge. First of all, their contact information is rarely available online and tends to be most easily accessed through pricey media directories. Second, there’s often a high turnover rate on booking staffs, which are composed mostly of young employees.
The high turnover rate can also be chalked up to the pace of the job, which often requires unpredictable hours. Hilary Lefebvre, who was a booker for CNN’s Crossfire, remembers the grueling schedule all too well. “We’d start making calls at nine in the morning and needed to have two people booked and totally set up within a couple hours,” she recalls. Lefebvre, who now runs her own private media booking firm, On Air Strategy LLC, recommends hiring a professional to make initial introductions to booking staff.
If hiring a professional is not an option, another good way to meet a booker is to ask a friend or colleague to make an introduction. Despite the high turnover rate, personal contacts matter a great deal in the television news business and bookers take their guest Rolodex with them when they change shows or networks. It always pays to make the connection as personal as possible.
HOW TO PITCH FOR THE SMALL SCREEN
If you’re reaching out to a television booker on your own, media experts stress that e-mail is always the best form of contact. Television bookers often do not have time to listen to voicemails while working the phones trying to nail down guests, so most often a simple, casual e-mail pitch does the trick. Lefebvre recommends using the e-mail subject line to briefly introduce yourself and what you are available to discuss— ideally a pertinent news topic of the day.
The body of your pitch should include a sentence or two on why you are the ideal guest to discuss the topic at hand. Often the best way to show this is with a link to something you have already written about it. “One of the best ways to get on television is to write,” says Ron Bonjean, a Republican consultant, owner of The Bonjean Company, and frequent commentator on cable television. “If you have the opportunity to write for a political blog, or write an op-ed, that can be circulated to the television bookers.” If possible, your pitch should also include a link to a previous appearance on television, even if it’s a local television access show or an Internet webcast, to show that you can be trusted on camera.
Tyler Harber discussing public opinion polling on the showdown between
Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and public employee unions.
It’s also important to remember that for a television booker, availability is among the most attractive qualities in a potential guest. One of the best ways to break into television is to let bookers know you’re free on holidays or early weekend mornings, when they often have to scramble to find a solid guest. Once you have helped a booker out of a jam, they will be more inclined to pay you back with a better time slot down the line. Responding to booking requests as quickly as possible is also key. Even though a booker has asked you to be a guest, they won’t always wait for a response before moving on to someone else.
Most importantly, unless you want your e-mails to be ignored, do not spam bookers with pitches or blind pitch everyone on your list of bookers—especially if they are at different networks. Every pitch should be geared toward the interests of a particular news network.
IN THE HOT SEAT
By most accounts, appearing on cable television news is a strange experience, especially when you aren’t in the same studio as the anchor. If that’s the case, upon arriving at the studio, you can expect to be taken into small, storage closet–sized room, where you will speak with the anchor via an earpiece and a live video feed. “It’s a bizarre experience,” says Republican political consultant Tyler Harber of The Prosper Group, who frequently appears on cable television. “You’re talking to a black box, to somebody that you can’t see, you can only hear out of one ear—and you’re expected to act naturally. It is the most unnatural thing ever.”
Once you sit down in front of the camera, it’s important to remember that you are visible at all times, warns Allison Kaminsky Putala, a consultant with Kaminsky Putala Public Relations who previously booked television for Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hill. “I tell all of my clients that, and the advice I give them is to act as though you are viewable to the audience at all times no matter what,” she says. “You don’t know when they’re going to cut to a split screen, you don’t know if you’re going to be cut to on a break.” Also, if there’s an extra television in the room, turn it off; it will only distract you during your hit.
Be sure to come prepared with three solid points ready for discussion—and work the most important of them into your response to the interviewer’s opening question. It’s also a good idea to have at least one catchy sound bite on the top of your head. And if you’re ever at a loss for words, Amos Snead, a communications veteran with Story Partners who previously managed radio and television media for top Republicans in the House, advises having a “fallback word” or a “bridge” word. Even a generic phrase, such as, “I think that’s really the point here,” can transition the conversation while you regain your train of thought.
Also, be prepared for just about anything to happen. Veterans of cable television news shows all have nightmare tales of at least one on-camera appearance gone awry. For example, the time their earpiece fell out, they couldn’t hear the host, or they were completed blindsided by the topic. Be prepared to address these issues calmly, perhaps by coming up with a polite way of letting the host know that you can’t hear the question due to a malfunctioning earpiece.
AFTER THE HIT
Once the cameras stop rolling, it’s a good idea to write a note of thanks to the producers or bookers who invited you onto the show. “You have some writing to do right after you go on television,” says Snead. “The cameras are off, and the pen and pad comes out. So much of this is relationship based.”
Doug Heye discusses President Obama’s Labor Day 2010 speech to the
AFL-CIO with CNN’s Ali Velshi.
Once you’ve been on television, be prepared for people to notice—everyone from your colleagues to your high school classmates. But along with flattering notes from long-lost cousins, several consultants warn that you should expect harsher feedback as well. “I’ve gotten quite a bit of hate mail over the past couple of years, particularly when I go on something like Hannity,” said Elleithee. “You got these people out there who are less than stable, who send you less than stable e-mails. In the beginning it wasn’t so harsh, but now it’s gotten to the point where I’ve stopped showing my wife.” It’s best not to respond to these e-mails, experts say. Nonetheless, that’s a small price to pay for the boost that television appearances can give to your career.
Shira Toeplitz is a political writer based in Washington, D.C. She has appeared on MSNBC, FOX, CNBC, and CNN Headline News.