Government & Politics

Analysis: Missouri governor avoids questions by relying on social media to spread message

Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens has used Facebook to make policy announcements rather than holding press conferences and fielding questions.
Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens has used Facebook to make policy announcements rather than holding press conferences and fielding questions.

Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens has relied primarily on Facebook to spread his message and curate his image, a strategy that grants him greater control and allows him to avoid answering tough questions.

Republican strategists applaud Greitens’ political savvy in his use of social media, but other Capitol observers say his reluctance to answer questions raises transparency concerns and does a disservice to Missourians.

“This is the most reclusive, inaccessible and unengaged governor I’ve ever covered,” said Phill Brooks, the statehouse correspondent for KMOX, the CBS radio affiliate in St. Louis, who has covered the statehouse since 1970.

Brooks, professor emeritus at the University of Missouri School of Journalism, called the dearth of media access troubling given the lack of disclosure of the governor’s inauguration donors and other transparency questions that have arisen during his first months in office. Greitens has been dogged by questions about so-called dark money, anonymous contributions to political groups that support the governor’s agenda.

Brooks said he approached Greitens with a question at the start of the legislative session. The governor refused to answer and his aides physically blocked Brooks from an entering an elevator, Brooks said — a first-time experience for the veteran reporter.

Similar scenes have played out repeatedly during the governor’s first months in office. Greitens complained during a February speech at the Capitol that the media focus too much on conflict and ignore his efforts to build consensus. He quickly left the event without answering questions as aides blocked the path of reporters who approached.

The governor has held only one news conference where he fielded general questions from Capitol reporters. His communications office installed a keypad lock on its door, effectively blocking reporters from posing questions to his staff in person. The governor’s staff members often ignore questions posed by email or phone.

It’s a sharp contrast with Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, a fellow Republican who regularly holds press events despite a sometimes contentious relationship with the media.

Greitens has used Facebook to make policy announcements rather than holding press conferences and fielding questions from reporters, including earlier this month when he announced he would be offering parental leave to executive branch employees with a Facebook video that featured his wife, Sheena, and young son, Jacob.

“It’s a little bit scary if Eric Greitens becomes one of the people who develops a way that public officials can do PR statements without having to be transparent,” Brooks said. “Donald Trump’s doing it with Twitter. Eric Greitens is doing it with Facebook.”

In an email, Greitens’ spokesman, Parker Briden, pushed back on the notion that the governor’s use of social media was meant to circumvent scrutiny. “We use every available resource to talk to the people, including social media where more and more Missourians are going for information about what the governor is doing to fight for them,” he said.

James Harris, a Jefferson City-based consultant who worked for former Gov. Matt Blunt, said Greitens’ Facebook page, which has nearly 170,000 followers, has enabled the governor to forge more direction connections with Missouri voters than he would by speaking through the traditional media.

“He’s very smart,” Harris said. “It’s a way for people to feel like they know him even if they’ve never met him. … There’s a sense of connection.”

Harris noted that newspapers and television stations regularly pick up the news and report it based on the governor’s Facebook posts — the same as they would if he held a press conference — and the website gives politicians the ability to target voters based on their preferences and IP address.

Greitens’ Facebook page is a mix of announcements, policy statements and photos of the governor, who served as a Navy SEAL, working out with the National Guard or firefighters, or touring communities. The page is full of ebullient comments from Missourians thanking Greitens for showing how much he cares about their communities.

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Jeff Roe, a veteran Republican strategist who advised U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz during his 2016 presidential campaign, called Greitens’ use of social media a winning tactic.

“You can reach more people. You don’t have to answer tough questions and you can get your message across without filters,” Roe said. “There’s no risk. All reward, no risk.”

Roe, who noted that this has been a growing trend in national politics for several years, said that “with each passing day it is harder and harder to do a cost-benefit analysis on dealing with an unruly press … than it is to talk to your own group of people.”

Brooks called that way of thinking politically shortsighted, contending that if Greitens wants to govern successfully, he needs to reach a broader audience than his social media followers.

“Social media, it’s a one-way street. You just blab off whatever you have to say. When you engage with reporters, it’s an interaction,” Brooks said. “… Every governor I’ve covered who succeeded in major politically difficult policy issues saw the need to go beyond just the people who listen to you.”

Ben Warner, a professor at the University of Missouri who studies political communication, said using social media as an alternative to talking with the press has pitfalls.

“The risk is that you’re talking to a much smaller slice of the electorate than you want to be communicating with,” he said. “There are a lot of people you’re not reaching.”

Roe contrasted Greitens with Brownback, who regularly fields tough questions about Kansas’ finances from reporters.

“He’s pretty open with the press and to what benefit?” Roe said, noting Brownback’s low approval ratings in recent years.

Brownback and his office have regularly criticized the media in public statements, but the governor has usually been willing engage reporters both at news conferences and in the Capitol halls.

Unlike Greitens, who is usually surrounded by aides and bodyguards when he walks through the Missouri Capitol, Brownback regularly strolls through the Kansas statehouse on his own. Brownback greets tourists, chats with lawmakers and, when approached by reporters, usually takes a few minutes to answer questions.

Brownback said in an email that “meeting with everyday Kansans — hearing their stories and learning from them — is one of the joys of being Governor” and that being “accessible to legislators is crucial to a healthy republic” when asked about his tendency to roam the Capitol hallways.

“While I don’t believe the media have always given conservative policies a fair shake, I believe that an open press is foundational to a free people,” Brownback said.

However, Brownback’s administration has in recent years become more aggressive on social media, using Twitter and Facebook as a forum to push back on media reports scrutinizing the governor’s fiscal policies.

“The people of Kansas deserve to hear both sides of every story and that is why we’ve gotten more active on social media,” Brownback said.

When Greitens does speak to the media, it’s usually national outlets, such as Fox News, rather than reporters who cover the Capitol on a daily basis. Greitens told conservative radio host Laura Ingraham on her nationally syndicated show in February that “people are tuning out a lot of what the liberal media is talking about.”

Jonathan Groves, president of the Missouri Sunshine Coalition, a group that works to promote open government, called Greitens’ selectivity a concern, noting that the governor ran on a campaign centered on transparency.

“The governor is representing all of the people in Missouri, not just the people who watch Fox News,” Groves said. “We should know how he is coming to the decisions that he’s making.

“… Do I expect him to do a news conference every week? Probably not. Do I expect to be accessible and answer questions once in a while? Yes, I do.”

Greitens did field questions from statehouse reporters at a Missouri Press Association earlier this month. Mark Maassen, the association’s executive director, said he thinks the governor “saw at that time that the big, bad press isn’t out to get him” and noted that Greitens said “he had hoped to have more accessibility.”

Greitens has held several Q&A sessions on Facebook Live, encouraging his followers to let him know their questions “about our mission for more jobs, higher pay, safer streets, and better schools” in a recent post.

Stephen Webber, the chair of the Missouri Democratic Party, said that these Facebook events don’t provide real scrutiny of the governor’s policies.

“He’s scared to take tough questions. So if he’s doing a Facebook Live, he can ignore questions about how seniors are going to face rising healthcare costs, and he can cherry-pick questions about how he likes doing a lot of pushups, which is a question he answered last time,” Webber said.

“It may be effective if his only concern is the enhancement of his political career. I don’t think it’s effective if his concern is actually communicating with real Missourians.”

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