If you watched any of the election coverage – the night of and over the next 10 days – you probably saw many shots of a guy standing in front of an electronic map of the U.S., depicting the Electoral College race.
For most Americans, it was a nail-biting marathon. And here we are more than two weeks later, and there are still plenty of issues surrounding the election that remain unresolved.
But when it came to explaining the nuances and intricacies of the 50 state horse race that decides who sits in the Oval Office and who goes home licking their wounds, that has increasingly come down to the analytical and storytelling skills of the person pointing at the “Big Board.”
It's a pressure packed gig – manipulating the images, keeping all those numbers straight, gabbing with the anchors, and dealing with someone talking into your ear piece. Few have the skills, presence, intelligence, and energy to pull it off.
At MSNBC, it was Steve Kornacki working the map, John King held down the fort at CNN, while Bill Hemmer parsed the numbers at Fox News. While each of the “map mavens” had a bit of relief, all three worked crazy long hours with little sleep.
So, did any of the three come out a winner? And if so, what are the variables that determine public perception of who owned the election (over and above the actual ratings, of course)?
Without question, the victor is Steve Kornacki. We can debate whether he's a more interesting personality, a better talent, or a smoother explainer of data. But my criteria goes well beyond on-screen performance. And how we think about this “game within a game” says a lot about how we approach our own “radio wars” or whatever competitive battle we're waging.
Here are six factors that have come into play, before, during, and just as importantly, after the election that separate MSNBC's map specialist from his able competitors across the street:
1. He has a look – King and Hemmer are straight out of central casting. They are good-looking, well-coifed anchors who are experienced and talented. But they look like everyone else in the TV news business. Kornacki is an original. It's isn't just his boyish grin and “can-do” attitude. He has that nerdy presence, underscored by no sports jacket, an off-the-rack striped tie, rolled up sleeves, and khakis – his signature outfit. Kornacki has his standard issue outfit, and he sticks to it, setting him apart from everyone else across the networks. Notably after the election, The Gap reported an increase in sales of what surely will become known as “Kornacki's Khakis.”
— Savannah Sellers (@WatchSavannah) November 11, 2020
2. He engages fans – I spoke with many observers of the various cable news networks during this “Super Bowl of elections.” And the name that kept coming up was Kornacki. How was he doing it? How could he work without sleep? How does he keep all those numbers in his head? How does he adjust on the fly to a dynamic, changing, chaotic environment? Fact is, King and Hemmer are as talented and adept. But it's Kornacki who bridges the gap between pollsters, anchors, and all of us:
I honestly dunno how steve is still going im bout to die pic.twitter.com/R8IEt8lbIj
— chrissy teigen (@chrissyteigen) November 5, 2020
3. He has his own merch – MSNBC markets Kornacki – the tie, T-shirts, coffee mugs. The khakis have to be next. And of course, this stuff proudly shows up all over social media.
@marionjherbert, look what arrived today…
— Reina (@rryjackson) November 16, 2020
4. He uses social media deftly – I have no idea how much of Steve Kornacki's presence in the social space is his own doing, MSNBC's larger strategy, or a combination of both. But having a memorable hashtag – #TrackingKornacki – is smart, free, and clever. And they even came up with a Kornacki emoji that reinforces his image (see #1), and also provides a sense of levity given the serious nature of election night. Here's a tweet from his MSNBC colleague, Ali Velshi, that brings the election coverage team into the conversation:
For those of you #TrackingKornacki he’s been at it for more than 12 hours. I’m going on to offer relief (I clearly can’t replace him) by touching the big board sometime after 6aET. That is, IF he will leave and get a nap. As Rachel @maddow says: “watch this space” https://t.co/CFyEHQZBfU
— Ali Velshi (@AliVelshi) November 4, 2020
5. He is authentically cross-promoted – As noted above in the Velshi examples, the entire MSNBC team seemingly loves to marvel at Kornacki's skills, endurance, and spirit. It doesn't matter whether it's Nicolle Wallace, Brian Williams, Rachel Maddow, or the other cast members – they all gleefully sing Kornacki's praises. Case in point: in the “Highs and Lows” feature from Willie Geist on the Sunday Today show, the first :90 are “all Kornacki, all the time.”
6. He is post-marketed – This may be the most important of why Kornacki comes out on top. In the days since the election, MSNBC has been running a Kornacki promo. It's a bit corny – using Heart's “Magic Man” as the soundtrack. But it's effective and memorable, reinforcing that even as the smoke clears, Kornacki emerges as a hero – the guy who helped put a confusing mess into perspective. The growing urban legend is that Kornacki stayed up for two straight days to bring his viewers dynamic coverage of the election. That may, in fact, be true, but that image has been sealed by all this post-promotion. Whether your candidates won or lost, having Kornacki running the play-by-play is what many will recall from all the election coverage during this long race.
That last point is a key, and something that many radio stations could do more strategically – and effectively. Too often, a radio station or personality show pulls off an incredible promotion, event, special, fundraiser, emergency coverage or stunt. If you were listening in real time, chances are you know who did what. But if you were busy, running your own life, and trying to hold onto your job, you might have missed much of the action.
That's where post-promotion is so critically important in sealing the deal perceptually – making sure the audience takes away the right image from your efforts. So often, this is where stations drop the ball, often because they're exhausted by the task itself.
Part of the momentum from all this activity is getting noticed by other media outlets. While he may not be a Brad Pitt or a George Clooney, Steve Kornacki was just named to the 2020 People “Sexiest Man Alive” list.
As MSNBC and Kornacki prove, it starts with extraordinary talent and a tour de force performance, of course. But how you stage it, work it, socialize it, backsell it, and preserve it in the collective mind of your audience is of paramount importance.
As Steve Kornacki might say, “The votes are still coming in.”
Maybe so, but we already know the winner.