What House of Cards Gets Right (and Wrong) About Political Communications



OK, then: if you’re like the rest of us, then you’ve spent the last few days watching the second season of Netflix’s House of Cards and wondering “is that really how the political comms game works?”

Today we discussed the matter with someone who would know. While Trey Ditto currently serves as CEO of New York’s Ditto Public Affairs, he’s also a veteran of the D.C. trenches: his past titles include Deputy Press Secretary for the Department of Education under President George W. Bush (among many others).

Ditto brought his insider’s knowledge to bear on HoC and the never-ending political PR game.

What does the show get right about the relationships between politicians, communicators and the media? What does it get wrong?

“The close relationship between the media and the people they cover is spot-on. As a Communications Director for a U.S. Congressman as well as a Cabinet Secretary, I was very close with producers and reporters and was able to push stories and angles frequently. Just like in House of Cards, there is an understanding that if I do a favor for the media, they will do one for me. What they miss is that a lot of the behind-the-scenes dirty work isn’t done by the Congressman, it’s done by his staff. The leaking and “relationship building” was my responsibility, not the Congressman’s or the Secretary’s.

Before lobbying reform, the relationship between a given Member’s office and lobbyists was inappropriately close. There was not as much vote wrangling by lobbyists as House of Cards leads us to believe, but they are very powerful.

Also, Congressmen and Senators are not always this strategic and conniving. On the Hill, Members turn to their staff for direction more often than not. In fact, staffers each have different agendas, and they battle each other.”


You mean like this guy?

What was the least realistic plot point in Season 1 from a PR perspective? What about Season 2 so far?

“From a media relations perspective…I was always interested in finding young reporters (most of whom were my age at the time) willing to listen and tell my boss’s side of the story. I can think of dozens of reporters who started out like Zoe and have now worked their way into very senior level positions. And yet, while House of Cards introduced a communications person in Season 2, Season 1 inaccurately portrayed Members of Congress as people who deal closely with media professionals.

A leak occurs in Season 2 — and while leaks are very common in Washington D.C., the related plot line is not very realistic. Most media need someone to speak on the record [in order to run a story], and I often allowed myself to be quoted as a ‘senior official’ to serve that need. On the other hand, the power of blogs and those relationships should allow any good communications person in D.C. to leak a story with or without attribution.”


Meet the new school [GIF via]

Regarding Mrs. Underwood’s interview in season 2: how would that event have proceeded in real life?

“A lot of my media friends in D.C. laugh at this part of Season 2, because in reality the Second Lady’s interview would have never happened. After a State of the Union, the White House and the President’s Office control all messaging, and all media interviews would have revolved around State of Union initiatives. When I worked in the Bush Administration, there were times when we wanted to be more external but understood that President Bush needed to take the lead on certain things.

I was in Washington D.C. during the Anthrax scares, and I can tell you first-hand that the Second Lady’s office would have cancelled this interview immediately. The takeaway for a PR person is that if you have a very influential client, timing is everything. I would never put my boss out there when there is breaking news that would cause her message to get lost in the noise.”


SLOTUS is so slick though, isn’t she??

The show portrays a culture in which bloggers have disrupted the traditional media relations dynamic. How true is this point?

“I’d argue that in Washington D.C. it’s more important to have relationships with bloggers than traditional media. The fact is they are starving for content, they’re looking for breaks and they’re able to get news up quickly. Also: if you have solid relationships, they will most likely help to push your agenda.

But there is a time and place for using a blogger when trying to push your agenda through the media. For larger announcements, a good communications director would find a mainstream reporter who has a large reach and is willing to write a fair story. Again, it’s all about getting your message out accurately to as many people as possible.”


Last but definitely not least: the lobbyist

Be honest, now: how closely does HoC reflect the day-to-day reality of the D.C. comms game?

“Some of my closest friends are reporters. That’s because, when I worked on the Hill and in the Bush Administration, I was fair and respectful and we all enjoyed each other’s company. There are other communications people in D.C. that take a very hostile approach to the media, whereas I felt that we could build on a relationship of mutual respect.

What House of Cards doesn’t show us is the serious amounts of drinking and brown-nosing that goes on between communications people and the media. When I worked in D.C., I was out almost every night having drinks with producers and reporters.

I think what they missed was the influence a communications director can have over his boss and also the infighting that occurs within a Member’s office to maintain and build on that influence. While Frank Underwood will do anything and everything to get bills passed and become Vice President, there are staffers who are doing almost the exact same things…to move up the food chain.”


No spoilers, as promised

Now what do we think about Ditto’s points?

@PatrickCoffee patrick.coffee@adweek.com Patrick Coffee is a senior editor for Adweek.