The 2020 Election Media Whirlwind

The French media has always had a fascination with the American presidential election system. Every four years, they trot out “US experts” who explain the arcane Electoral College to their baffled French viewers, and point out what the red and blue areas on the map mean. And, being French, they engage in one of their favorite exercises: moderating debates. 

We had a hunch that French media interest in the 2020 US Presidential election would be particularly intense, and we wanted to ensure that we were ready to meet the triple challenge of explaining the role of Democrats Abroad in helping overseas Americans vote, educating the French public about the American election system, and promoting the Biden-Harris ticket as well as the down-ballot Democratic candidates. To do so, the  DAFrance national leadership prioritized expanding the experienced spokespersons pool so that it better represented the diversity of our leadership and our regional geography. 

If you’ve never been a press spokesperson, you probably can’t imagine what a perilous exercise it can be to go on live TV and radio to answer questions from journalists who excel in getting their guests to say something controversial. You must be careful about every word that comes out of your mouth, because you are there not to give your personal opinion, but rather to “carry the word” of the organization you represent. [The French word for spokesperson– “porte-parole”– expresses this perfectly.] 

To be an effective spokesperson for an organization such as Democrats Abroad, there are many elements to master: knowing what to say, knowing how to say it, answering difficult questions, and, of course, skillfully wielding the spokesperson’s specialty: NOT answering certain questions, but rather pivoting to a slightly different topic. (If you’ve ever watched a politician being interviewed and thought “well, what he just said was interesting, but he didn’t really answer the question”, you know what a pivot is.) 

So, the DA France leadership and Comms team recruited leaders who had relevant experience, or were willing to learn, and would have the time to devote to the team’s effort once the requests started pouring in. We set up a training program, led by former professional spokesperson, Amy Porter. It quickly became clear to all that you don’t magically become a media spokesperson: it involves training, homework and practice.

From top left (clockwise): Joe Smallhoover, Philip Breeden, Amy Below, Didier Moutou, Gretchen Pascalis, Kate Barrett, Julia Grégoire, Fred Hoffman, Amy Porter.

Our team of 18 trained spokespeople, reaching every corner of l'Hexagone, was comprised of diverse profiles: from teachers and fitness coaches to former State Department staffers, lawyers, and constitutional law experts. They each attended practice sessions where we tried our darndest to get them flustered! Armed with frequently updated Talking Points, the team handled more than 130 media hits by election day, of which 100 were done between November 3rd and 8th. In this whirlwind of activity, some spokespeople did as many as 5 interviews per day, including:

  • Panel discussions, interviews, and debates with Republicans.
  • National media outlets, such as LCI, BFM, M6, FranceInfo, RTL, FranceInter, France24, Libération and Le Parisien as well as numerous local television, radio stations and newspapers.

The appetite for debates in the French media was seemingly endless, as was the stream of Republican spokespeople. But we outmatched them: the people invited to TV studios had not benefited from the professional training that our spokespeople had undergone, and were armed only with “alternative facts” and conspiracy theories. In that respect, they accurately represented their candidate… Some of those debates got a “bit” heated. But our team rose to the occasion time and again, showing calmly and patiently that truth prevails over lies.

We continued to comment on the election results through mid-November, and expected a quiet few weeks until Inauguration Day. That calm came to an abrupt halt with the Capitol Insurrection on Jan. 6th, which we were compelled to comment on in real time as the events of the day unfolded! No amount of training or talking points could have prepared us for that… But we persisted, and were again asked to comment on TV, radio and print through the Biden-Harris Inauguration Day, doing an additional 49 hits in January, after which we all breathed a collective sigh of relief.

Here are a few examples of DA France spokespeople in action (and a trip down memory lane):

November 1: Le Progrès (Lyon) with Diane Sklar

November 4: France 24 with Amy Below

November 5: France 3 (Paris/IdF) with Didier Moutou

November 6: FranceInfo with Fred Hoffman

November 7: France 24 with Gretchen Pascalis

November 7: Libération with Ada Shen and Amy Porter

November 8: BFM with Philip Breeden

January 19: 20 Minutes (Toulouse) with Scott Stroud

January 20: LCI with Julia Grégoire

February 9: LCI with Amy Porter

DA France is proud of the work done by the Media team, which has led to a higher profile in France for Democrats Abroad, supporting our mission around the world. Now, we stand ready for whatever the news cycle throws our way.

Thanks to our spokespeople! (in alphabetic order)

  • Kate Barrett (Paris)
  • Reed Kennedy (Paris)
  • Amy Below (Paris)
  • Didier Moutou (Paris)
  • Philip Breeden (Marseille)
  • Gretchen Pascalis (Grenoble)
  • Victoria Gonzales (Paris)
  • Amy Porter (Deputy National Communications Coordinator)
  • Julia Grégoire (National Counsel)
  • Ada Shen (National Chair)
  • Rebecca Grossberg (Lille/Normandy) 
  • Diane Sklar (Lyon)
  • Fred Hoffman (Paris)
  • Joe Smallhoover (International Legal Counsel)
  • Jonathon Holler (National Vice Chair)
  • Scott Stroud (Toulouse) 
  • Aimee Johanssen (Brittany) 
  • Erik Teetsov (Bordeaux) 

 

  • Barbara Wells (Strasbourg)