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The Media Background

Reflecting on how American politicians treat religion on their campaigns.
by Jim Fair | Source:

Ever since the first politician appeared on television, public-relations people have been worrying about what sort of background to put a candidate in front of.

In the early days of television, before cameras and politicians were terribly sophisticated, the background might be blank.  With the advent of color television, it probably was blue.  

Later came the “American flag” phase; politicians were invariably shown behind a massive desk with American flags on either side.  This later was amplified by adding a photo of family or someone everyone loved (George Washington, Abraham Lincoln) on a credenza behind the candidate.

Today we are in the midst of the “people sitting behind the candidate” phase.  That is, whenever a political candidate speaks he is shown with a crowd of people behind him.  It seems that people are really excited to be part of this “behind the candidate” audience, maybe because they know they will be in the camera shot and friends and relatives might see them on the television.

Frankly, I’ve never wanted to sit behind someone when they give a speech because I think seeing their facial expressions is important.  Of course, in the case of politicians it might be an advantage – I could see if they have their figures crossed behind their backs while making promises of no new taxes.

But for public-relations folks who decide who sits behind the candidate, there is a lot to consider.  People selected have to have at least the following characteristics:
• Look excited when the candidate says something inspiring.
• Look serious when the candidate says something serious.
• Don’t pick your nose.
• Don’t nod off.
• Don’t talk when the candidate is talking.
• Represent some desirable ethnic/racial subsection of the American electorate.
• Don’t wear anything that marks you as a representative of a controversial religion.

Some of one presidential candidate’s public-relations folks caused a bit of a tiff this past week because they decided that two women in Muslim scarves were not desirable for the behind-the-candidate section.  They were asked to leave, there was a fuss, and the candidate later apologized.  But the same problem will occur again, as the fear arises that a candidate has too many NASCAR caps, blonds, young people, bespectacled left-handers or whatever in the background.

While this is a relatively new people for candidates, it was been a long-standing issue in some form for public-relations people (one of which, in my other life, I am).  It usually comes up in things like corporate annual reports, where you want to show a pleasant balance of white, tan, brown, black, pink and yellow faces of various genders and ages.  This can be a challenge if, for instance, a company’s entire management team are white males in their mid-50s.

The effort to get the balance just right can become tortured and artificial.  And I expect the politicians are learning that no matter how it is handled, someone’s feelings are hurt.  

They might have been better off with the desk and flag.

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