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Media Expert Looks to Reagan as Model Communicator - 2004-06-18


This month, the United States lost a former president when Ronald Reagan died at 93. Mr. Reagan was known as the "Great Communicator" for his talent in getting across his message. Media expert George Merlis says communication skills like Mr. Reagan's can be learned.

George Merlis is the former executive producer of "Good Morning America," a news and interview show on the ABC television network. In the course of his career, he conducted or coordinated countless interviews with politicians and public officials.

He says three American leaders of the 20th century were master communicators. The first was President Franklin Roosevelt, whose "fireside chats" on radio, helped lift the nation's spirits during the Great Depression and in wartime.

In the television age, he says few could match President John F. Kennedy, or later, President Reagan, for their mastery of the medium. Mr. Merlis says Mr. Reagan, a former Hollywood actor, always adopted a style that was right for the context.

MERLIS: "There were three Reagans: Reagan in the news conference, casual, relaxed. He had a great self-deprecating sense of humor. Reagan on the stump giving a political speech, rising to great oratorical heights."

REAGAN: "I am not frightened by what lies ahead, and I don't believe the American people are frightened by what lies ahead."

MERLIS: "And Reagan addressing the nation one on one in a presidential address, sitting in the Oval Office. And you really had the feeling he was sitting in your living room talking to you."

Mr. Reagan was a master communicator, but Mr. Merlis says others also illustrate techniques that help to get across a message. Rosalynn Carter, the wife of former President Jimmy Carter, charmed her interviewers.

"Actually, both the Carters did this," Mr. Merlis says. "Rosalynn Carter came onto Good Morning America the first time when her husband, Jimmy Carter, was running for president. And before she sat down in the chair, she walked around to each person on the set, introduced herself and shook their hands, and then sat down. And I will tell you that if that woman had a hair out of place, there were 12 people on the set who were going to step in and correct it for her."

He says the former first lady was gracious, and smart to win over those who could help her look good.

Former Senator Barry Goldwater made a point of arriving at interviews very early. Before Ronald Reagan's first inauguration in 1981, Mr. Goldwater was scheduled to appear on "Good Morning America" at 7 o'clock in the morning. The set was a makeshift structure above Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington. Senator Goldwater showed up 90 minutes before airtime.

"And he came in, sat down, and sat quietly in the back, and read the newspapers, and then read the wire service reports," he recalls. "And that was a really good example of how you get there early, so you don't arrive late and end up sitting on-mic hyperventilating, and you're knowledgeable. You know as much as your interviewer because you've been reading up on the latest developments."

Mr. Merlis says interview subjects should practice their message beforehand so that they can convey it concisely in language worthy of quoting. He says former President Richard Nixon was a master at delivering quotable "sound bites."

Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Carter's national security adviser, had his own technique to control what got on the air.

"I think Brzezinski got burned once or twice with edited comments, so he would say to you, 'how long is this going to run?'" Mr. Merlis notes. "And if you said, three minutes, he would put his bottom in the chair, look the interviewer in the eye, start a stopwatch and three minutes later, get up and walk out."

Mr. Merlis says that even Mr. Reagan, the master communicator, on occasion made mistakes. He says the former president liked to wear a brown suit that looked red on television, which was distracting. Mr. Reagan made an even bigger mistake while making a joking comment before a major announcement.

"Asked for a mic check, he characterized the communist leaders of Poland as a bunch of, direct quote, 'no good, lousy bums,'" Mr. Merlis said.

While many may have agreed with the president's assessment, especially the people of Poland, who would remove those leaders from office, Mr. Reagan should not have said the words publicly.

Two years later, toward the end of his first term as president, Mr. Reagan made an even more embarrassing comment.

Reagan:"My fellow Americans, I'm pleased to tell you today that I've signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes."

Again it was a joke not meant for public consumption, but Mr. Merlis says the former president broke a cardinal rule, to always assume that a microphone is on.

However, the expert says Mr. Reagan remained a media model and that modern politicians, including President Bush and challenger John Kerry, should learn from his example. Mr. Merlis says Mr. Reagan always knew he was addressing the audience behind the microphone and camera.

George Merlis' book, "How to Make the Most of Every Media Appearance," is published by McGraw-Hill.

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