Symington now working as media consultant to would-be politicians - East Valley Tribune: Arizona

Symington now working as media consultant to would-be politicians

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Posted: Thursday, November 11, 2010 4:05 pm | Updated: 5:28 pm, Tue Nov 23, 2010.

Would you take media advice from a former governor who was sued by his creditors, had to declare bankruptcy, was ousted from office after a criminal conviction - and claims to have actually seen a UFO?

Fife Symington says it's precisely that experience which makes his advice valuable - to the tune of up to $15,000 for a two-day session.

Symington said that, as a twice-elected governor, would-be politicians come to him asking how to deal with the media.

"And I've been giving it for free for some time," he told Capitol Media Services. Now, after being pestered by his son, Richard, Symington has decided to make it a commercial enterprise.

"It's really kind of a hands-on, no-holds-barred kind of media training concept," he said.

Symington said it's more than just the basics of telling people that reporters expect the truth and expect them to return their calls in a timely fashion. And those most in need, he said, are those who have never been in the political arena - and never questioned by a reporter.

"Let's just say, for example, they run into you in the lobby of a hotel and you start to ask a lot of questions," Symington explained. "That particular individual, being a political neophyte, may not have a clue what kind of a story you're writing, what your angle of attack's going to be, how to answer."

He said a lot of it has to do with how an answer is phrased.

"It's sort of an art form, particularly with television interviews," Symington said. "The media is relentless the way it comes at you, usually with fairly negative questions, trying to put you off balance." Symington said his training will do things like help turn a negative question into a positive and just becoming comfortable with the environment.

Symington knows a bit about those kind of questions.

In the 1990 gubernatorial race against Democrat Terry Goddard, Symington portrayed himself as a successful businessman.

Not long after his election, though, a union pension fund which had loaned him money for one of his projects sued him, charging he lied about his financial condition. That civil suit - and the bankruptcy protection he eventually sought - resulted in reporters getting access to reams of documents about Symington's finances that otherwise would never have become public.

But it got worse.

He eventually was indicted and convicted in federal court on charges of defrauding his investors.

That conviction was overturned after an appellate court concluded the trial judge improperly disqualified one of the jurors. There never was a second trial: In one of his last acts in office, President Bill Clinton, whom he had saved from drowning as a young man, preemptively pardoned Symington.

Symington said that's precisely why someone should pay him up to $15,000 for a two-day session.

"I've been there," he said. "I've seen the dark and I've been through it."

None of Symington's unpaid help did any good for John Munger whom he endorsed early on in a bid to become this year's Republican nominee for governor.

Munger left the race relatively early. But Symington said his skills in dealing with reporters wasn't the reason why.

"How you handle the media is just one part of the panoply of a candidacy," he said. "All you can do is get somebody ready and comfortable." He said Munger did that, even coming to the common press room shared by Capitol reporters to hold press conferences.

He said Munger had no chance of defeating incumbent Jan Brewer because of the governor's sharp spike in popularity after signing a new law aimed at illegal immigrants.

But Symington said the just-completed election did produce some successes for those he advised, including Rep. Steve Pierce, R-Prescott, and newly selected Congressman Ben Quayle.

The cost, said Symington, depends on the office being sought.

On one extreme, he said, would be someone running for local office who just wants some quick pointers. At the other end are those going after statewide or congressional offices who need more intense training, especially in handling one-on-one televised interviews.

"You could be talking anywhere from a couple of grand to a whole lot more," he said, saying that his fees would be similar to national firms which charge anywhere from $5,000 to $15,000.

What someone would typically get is two four-hour sessions.

"A lot of that would be on camera, in studio, and it would involve role playing," Symington said, with the sessions videotaped. "Then we would go back over them in detail, review them, and focus totally on your mannerisms, how you looked on TV, how you responded to these tough questions, pointing out all the flaws. And then you'd do it again."

The bottom line, said Symington, is that comfort level "so they won't have that uncomfortable deer-in-the-headlights moment, which, of course, is every media person's and reporter's dream to catch somebody, like Jan Brewer's pause" during her televised general election debate.

Symington's future isn't dependent on whether he gets to charge for political advice. After attending the Scottsdale Culinary Institute and working in the kitchens of some major Valley restaurants, he helped found the Arizona Culinary Institute and remains an adviser to the school.

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