3 Media Training Rules to Prepare You For Primetime

If you haven’t seen Democratic socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s viral appearance on “Firing Line” yet, well…it’s a doozy.

Here’s a quick cut of the greatest hits:

It’s hard to know where to even begin critiquing Ocasio-Cortez’s performance (or lack thereof, for that matter). From the long silences, to the stuttering, backpedaling and bad information, to her admission that she has no idea what she’s talking about – not to mention her ludicrous claim that Israel is responsible for “occupying” Palestine and promoting a policy of “massacre” against its people – there’s no way around it: it was a train wreck.

It’s a cliché that “all press is good press,” but when it comes to going viral, not all clicks are good clicks. The reaction to Ocasio-Cortez’s oblivious, unsubstantiated arguments was equal parts swift and scathing – rightfully so. The radical talking points that she regurgitated came off more like a case of Candidate Stockholm Syndrome than like a credible and prepared public servant. This, combined with her inability to defend those tin-foil hat positions have landed her in hot water with her own party and put her campaign on the defensive.

But only a few weeks ago, Ocasio-Cortez was hailed in the press as the Next Great Savior of the American Left. What happened? 

“I’m not an expert on geopolitics on this issue"

– Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

It became clear that Ocasio-Cortez isn’t ready for primetime. She was, very simply, ill-prepared.

No amount of romanticism or charm can insulate America’s next big game-changer from becoming a Capitol Hill punchline in the time it takes to compose a snarky tweet. But preparation can.

Here are three basic media training lessons that, had Ocasio-Cortez kept in mind both before and during her interview, would’ve ensured that she came off as credible, even in places outside of her comfort zone:

  1. Do your research. Margaret Hoover isn’t exactly the hardest-hitting interviewer in Washington – indeed, pretty much every question she asked Ocasio-Cortez gave the young Democratic Socialist the benefit of the doubt, to say the least. But even Hoover’s softball questions weren’t enough to save Ocasio-Cortez from the thoughtlessness of her own answers and her own failure to prepare. Upon being pressed by Hoover to clarify her position on Israel, it became immediately clear from her body language that Ocasio-Cortez had done zero research to back up her accusations – and if it wasn’t immediately clear, she admitted as much only seconds later. Taking some time before the interview to brush up on the facts and key data points – like the fact that the unemployment rate isn’t measured by how many jobs are filled, but by how many people are working – can make all the difference when it comes to conveying confidence and command of an issue when the cameras are on and the lights are up.

  2. Limit your responses. Candidates often struggle with this concept – after all, so much of campaigning involves talking to voters and giving speeches – but the bottom line is that if you don’t say it, they can’t write it. When asked a question, deliver your message with confidence, get your point across, and then stop talking; you don’t need any extra verbiage or examples to make your point, and if they’d like to hear more, they’ll ask. Why risk tripping yourself up and creating the perfect content for an opposition hit ad?

  3. Stay on message. Unlike what should have been Ocasio-Cortez’s soft-landing on PBS’ rebooted, non-ideological “Firing Line,” Republican candidates for office often face a hostile press; liberal reporters, bloggers and talking heads who are more interested in smearing conservative interviewees than asking them meaningful questions in good faith. By sticking to your message, refusing to take the bait and avoiding big partisan food fights, you can use the interview as an opportunity to not just get air time, but to directly deliver your message to potential voters without getting distracted.

Whether you’re a respected elected official preparing for a long interview on Meet the Press or a 27-year-old socialist espousing crackpot talking points on PBS, this is the bottom line: at their very best, media appearances are unique opportunities to deliver your message and connect with regular Americans. At their very worst, unprepared media appearances can be an in-kind contribution to your opponent’s emergency fund for their next hit spot on you.

So do your research, limit your responses, and stay on message, unless you’d like to spend a week or so defending your image and getting laughed at by your opponents.

Jamestown Public Affairs – Advocacy. Strategy. Political Insight.