Fraser Seitel
Fraser Seitel

The best thing to happen to Joe Biden’s 2024 presidential campaign was the hastily-called press conference on the special counsel’s damning exoneration of the President’s handling of classified documents because he was a “well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory.”

Biden’s press conference was an unmitigated disaster.

And if his public relations advisors are smart, it will set the boundaries for the President’s media relations strategy against Donald Trump in November.

To say that Biden’s February 8 White House press conference was “bad” gives “bad” a bad name.

His tone was too defiant and defensive, e.g. “I’ve been President and I put this country back on its feet. I don’t need his recommendation.”

His verbal slip-ups were egregious, e.g. “Initially, the President of Mexico, el-Sisi, did not want to open the (Rafah) gate.”

And in storming back at the CNN woman for questioning his competence, the President even violated the oldest commandment of media relations: “Never get in a peeing match with someone who buys ink by the barrel.”

Bad. Bad. Bad. The kind of cringe-worthy performance that media trainers will dwell on for years. But as horrifying as Biden was, the lessons learned from his media meltdown could form the blueprint for a winning campaign media relations formula.

First, let canned communication do most of the talking.

Whether Democrats like it or not, the fact is that Joe Biden has always been a gaffe machine and dangerous off-the-cuff speaker who’s gotten progressively worse as he’s grown more, ahem, “elderly.”

That’s why the vast majority of his campaign communications should be canned—like TV ads that show the President in action, direct mail appeals that underscore achievements and scripted videos for TikTok, Instagram and the rest of social media that speak directly to younger voters. All on tape, not live.

Biden’s greatest assets in the upcoming campaign—in which few Americans want either him or his likely opponent to undertake—are first, he’s running against the dreaded Donald Trump and second, the billions of dollars he’ll raise to run. His greatest liability is himself and what he might say if left unscripted.

Therefore, the logical use of all those communications dollars should be in promotional communications drafted by professional writers.

Second, get out and mingle with the voters.

Biden may not be an accomplished extemporaneous speaker, but he’s a great retail politician. The man can schmooze with Mr. and Mrs. American Voter as well as anyone. And he loves campaigning.

So, the Biden campaign should release him to travel the countryside, engaging in small-group conversations with voters. They should try to ensure these voter groups are as friendly as possible and avoid the candidate taking questions from the dangerous, traveling media corps accompanying him.

Likewise, town halls with Biden should be avoided unless it’s a pre-screened—i.e., Biden-friendly voters—crowd. If this sounds “fixed,” tough noogies. Biden is great with supporters and terrible with detractors. So, go ahead and keep him on the road, but keep him clear of those who disagree or challenge.

Third, no more press conferences.

Sure, special counsel Robert Hur was a closet Republican who gratuitously ambushed a vulnerable target, but he was also right. Biden is old and feeble and forgetful and potentially embarrassing in a sensitive public setting, despite what his retainers tell you.

Consequently, the worst communications setting for such a shaky octogenarian is a free-for-all press conference with rabid-dog reporters looking to make a name for themselves. So, Biden campaign managers should keep the candidate away from such media scrums from here on.

This suggestion disagrees diametrically with the counsel he’s getting from his Democrat base. The New York Times Board of Editors, for example, wrote:

“The President has to reassure and build confidence with the public by doing things that he has so far been unwilling to do convincingly … He could undertake more town hall meetings in communities and on national television. He should hold regular news conferences to demonstrate his command and direction for leading the country.”

If the New York Times, which is always wrong, recommends you do “more press conferences,” then a smart candidate should do precisely the opposite and do none! Won’t that provoke criticism of Biden for ducking the media? Sure.

But … as special counsel Hur also wrote, Biden is also widely considered a “well-intentioned man” who takes his job seriously and works long hours, when most men his age are playing bridge and sleeping.

So, voters will cut him some slack if he chooses to avoid the media jackals, who most people don’t much like anyway.

Fourth, do selective, friendly one-on-one interviews.

While Biden should swear off press conferences, he still can’t avoid media interviews completely. Trump, of course, is already dominating election news with his words and actions. And he and the Republicans will seize on his opponent’s reluctance to meet the press.

To close the media relations gap and present at least an appearance of willingness to be interviewed, the Biden managers should sequence one-on-one interviews with friendly reporters at strategic intervals throughout the campaign.

They should begin with the same New York Times editorial board. The Times, even though fiercely anti-Trump and pro-Biden, is still regarded as the paper of record that sets the agenda for other media. In this case, it can be counted on to pull punches for the Democrat candidate and present him in a favorable light without exposing many warts.

As to broadcast, one-on-ones with anybody at MSNBC is a must. MSNBC makes no bones about being in the tank for Biden—as Fox is for Trump—and would serve as a willing doormat to focus on the President’s strengths. CNN, with new management claiming greater objectivity, is a tougher call. Friendly podcasters also are a must for one-on-ones.

The point is that Biden's handlers must insist he do media interviews throughout the campaign but only with friendly interviewers.

David French, one of the few bearable Times’ editorial writers, has made the point that Biden’s occasional slips and stumbles make it imperative that during the campaign, the President, himself, proves that he isn’t in decline by “publicly demonstrating that he is not.”

Fair enough. But he should do it only in the most controlled of media environments.


Fraser P. Seitel has been a communications consultant, author and teacher for more than 40 years. He’s the author of the Pearson text “The Practice of Public Relations,” now in its 14th edition, and co-author of “Rethinking Reputation" and "Idea Wise.” He may be reached directly at [email protected].