Chavez, Walters & The Art of Media Relations

by Rick Rockwell

Say what you will about Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez, but the man and his public relations folks know how to play hardball.

Or some would say, ABC News got suckered by Chavez into throwing too many softballs his way in an interview.

Either way, Chavez struck with alacrity to grab the media/propaganda high ground at the end of last week. President George Bush went on his longest Latin American tour and even the Latin American media were reporting more about the U.S. attorney scandal in Washington than about Bush’s trip as it wound to a conclusion. Chavez had embarked on a shadow tour of the region about the same time and rallied many to the anti-Bush cause. However, he scored his biggest triumph when he invited Barbara Walters of ABC News to Caracas for an exclusive sit-down, just as the Bush tour was concluding. Chavez got a Friday night primetime slot, while most of the U.S. media were clamoring about Alberto Gonzales, Bush’s embattled Attorney General.

It seems Chavez is applying the art of Sun Tzu to media relations: “One defends when his strength is inadequate, he attacks when it is abundant.”

And make no mistake, the invitation to Walters was an offensive, because Chavez is rarely interviewed by the U.S. media. So Chavez handed Walters another exclusive for her mantle in return for plenty of airtime on 20/20 and other ABC News outlets.

The right-wing blogosphere was aghast at what they called the softball questions she served up to Chavez. Conservative bloggers in Venezuela were upset too. And they were right. Walters did toss softballs. But that’s what ABC gets when they send a celebrity interviewer (sure, she has interviewed presidents and revolutionaries before, but face it, Walters is all about the celebrity) to do the job that reporter Brian Ross should be doing for them.

The problem is that Chavez gets so little in-depth coverage in the U.S. that Walters’ report was superficial and basic, just to acquaint the U.S. audience with the issues. But here are three questions she could have considered instead of one of those softballs:

1) If Chavez is truly successful, why is he pushing for a Constitutional change to be re-elected again after 2012? By then he’ll have been president for 14 years.

2) Why is Chavez closing one of the top Venezuelan networks if he is a true democrat?

3) Why is Chavez currently ruling by decree, instead of working with the National Assembly?

Chavez and his folks have good answers to all of those, but they should have been asked.

However, this is what passes for television magazine journalism today. It’s not what you ask, or how you ask it anymore. It is the mere fact that you landed the interview so it can be marketed and promoted.

Chavez was ready for that. The Martin Luther King Jr. reference that Chavez tosses off in English at the end was both sincere and planned. Chavez, Walters, and her producers know a great soundbite when they hear it. And that’s all you have to have today to win the game of media relations.

(Photo of President Hugo Chavez from the Venezuelan government's official website; the photo is in the public domain. To see the full 20/20 interview between Chavez and Walters, please check below.)

(For other recent pieces on this theme, please see:

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