News Outlets Use Pancakes and Politicians to Boost Brand

Dave Cook is proud of his logo. The host of the Christian Science Monitor’s weekly Monitor Breakfast considers the cheerful yellow sun, blazing prominently behind the event’s speakers, a branding opportunity. “We’ve gotten unabashed in our marketing fervor in our old age,” said Cook, the publication’s Washington bureau chief.

What started in 1966 as an off-the-record question-and-answer session between politicians and the journalist friends of a Monitor correspondent, Godfrey Sperling Jr. -- “mostly old white guys,” as Cook put it -- has grown into an on-the-record, $47-a-plate session at Washington’s St. Regis Hotel that is often aired on C-Span. “That is, when they don’t have something else going on,” Cook said.

With more than 3,770 breakfasts under its belt, the Monitor has the longest-running morning lecture series in the U.S. capital. But as Bloomberg Businessweek reports in its Feb. 11 issue, that doesn’t give it much of an edge in the increasingly competitive rush for guests as other news organizations have come to see the most important meal of the day as great marketing.

“In the last three or four years it seems like everyone has gotten in on the action,” said Cook. Politico’s Mike Allen hosts a Playbook Breakfast at the W Hotel every week, catered by celebrity chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s J&G Steakhouse. National Journal and the Wall Street Journal, among others, sponsor regular breakfasts as well.

Journalists’ Visibility

Some of the news organizations use the meals to boost their brands and give visibility to star journalists. Politico’s event is sponsored by Bank of America. At the Wall Street Journal’s Jan. 23 breakfast with Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, chairman of the House Budget Committee and the Republicans’ 2012 vice presidential candidate, the backdrop was festooned with the newspaper’s logo and the names of editors Gerald Seib and David Wessel, the hosts, in huge type.

“People try to turn them into must-attend events, to develop a reputational awareness that these organizations are worth your time,” said Juleanna Glover, a lobbyist who was Vice President Dick Cheney’s press secretary in 2001 and 2002 and has been a breakfast regular for years.

The most successful -- and elusive -- gatherings are those where the guest says something noteworthy. In the news stories that follow, the event’s host gets a mention.

Scripted Subjects

That doesn’t happen often: Even before they have had their coffee, politicians are usually on their guard, and any news they do make tends to be scripted. Like movie stars who show up on the CBS program “The Late Show with David Letterman” when they have a film to plug, politicians use the breakfasts to promote themselves in a venue far tamer than a town hall meeting or a press conference.

Ryan, who has been chairman of the Budget Committee since 2011, became a regular on the pancakes-and-eggs circuit when he was pushing his budget plan. In addition to the Journal’s breakfast, he has headlined Playbook and Monitor events. Even after being on the losing side in the 2012 election, he’s still a big draw; Kevin Seifert, his press secretary, says Ryan receives about 10 invitations a month.

With so many breakfasts each week, there aren’t enough high-profile guests to go around. Over the years the Christian Science Monitor has hosted four U.S. presidents, five vice presidents and scores of senior senators -- Massachusetts Democrat Ted Kennedy used to attend regularly, his Portuguese water dogs Sunny and Splash in tow. Now the Monitor often settles for policy wonks and economists.

Politicians, Consultants

Politico sometimes boasts big names such as Senator John McCain, the Arizona Republican who was his party’s presidential candidate in 2008, and Representative Nancy Pelosi of California, the leader of the House Democrats. Its events have also featured Henry Barbour, a Republican consultant and lobbyist who is the nephew of former Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour.

“I don’t remember how I got invited, to tell you the truth,” said Mike Isabella, a Washington restaurateur and former contestant on the “Top Chef” television show who in 2011 appeared on a Playbook Breakfast “celebrity panel” with actors Tim Daly and Rosario Dawson. “It was my first time at one of those things, so it was pretty cool,” he said. “I’m a big fan of Rosario Dawson, so I liked meeting her.”

Finding guests isn’t the problem, according to Cook: “The good guests, the ones who will fill the room -- that’s not as easy.”

In January he held a timely discussion with National Rifle Association President David Keene, who called background checks for private gun sales “excessively burdensome.” This month, Cook will host the head of the National Transportation Safety Board -- not quite the sexiest job in Washington.

But even on days when the guest isn’t much of a draw, “there’s always a cholesterol-laden breakfast” to lure reporters, Cook said, adding: “I call it better journalism through bacon.”

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