Instead, the before- and after-derby has become an exercise in “branding,” an effort by publishers, networks and other media companies to raise their profiles among a subset of the WHCA dinner masses, event planners say. The real targets are a few hundred elite and influential guests.
The parties help news organizations court would-be advertisers and reward existing ones by putting them in proximity to power and the Hollywood figures who will be transported and pampered at the media’s expense this weekend. The goal is to cement the party-giver’s status as a big-time Washington player, even when some party-givers, such as Vanity Fair magazine, aren’t really Washington players.
As such, the most important party guests this weekend are “the guys who control [an advertiser’s] marketing budget,” says David Adler, the chief executive of BizBash.com, a news site that tracks corporate events and planning. “One guy from GM is much more important” than a typical Washington figure. Adds Adler: “The dinner is just a prop for the merchandising and marketing side of the media business.”
Celebrities might be the bait, but the businesspeople are at the top of most guest lists. Politico’s chief executive, Robert Allbritton, for example, has invited a sprinkling of Hollywood types (Bradley Cooper, Daniel Day-Lewis, Kerry Washington) to a Sunday brunch at his home in Georgetown. But Politico has a much longer guest list of corporate figures for the dinner the night before, including top executives from AT&T, Bank of America, the Business Roundtable, Coca-Cola, Chevron, GE Transportation, Goldman Sachs, Google, MGM Resorts, Microsoft, Northrop Grumman, Qualcomm and Siemens. (We know this because Politico is among several media organizations that have issued news releases bragging about their guests.)
Atlantic Media’s top event planner, Senior Vice President Elizabeth Baker Keffer, says the WHCA weekend has become Washington’s not-quite-equivalent version of the Davos economic conference. Much like that annual gathering of corporate royalty in Switzerland, she says, the events and parties this weekend will bring “key influentials” to town, including “the entire C-suite.”
“Chief executives, chief financial officers, chief operating officers, chief marketing officers,” she says. “The seniority of corporate contacts [in attendance] has increased. That creates an opportunity to showcase our brands . . . to build relationships and interact with some very senior clients.” For most of the high rollers, she says, “this is less about going to a party and much more about high-level networking.”
For Atlantic Media, which is staging five events, the return on investment remains “intangible,” Keffer says. It’s impossible to know if a relationship struck up over cocktails led to an ad buy, she notes, but it can’t hurt.
Keffer thinks some C-suite denizens — particularly those in banking and the auto business — were reluctant to be seen at glitzy social events in Washington in recent years because the optics were all wrong, especially for those who received government bailouts. But as the economy improves, that concern might have faded.
In any event, she says, “there’s more interest and appetite to attend and less concern about the risk to reputation this year than in years past.”
All the corporate courting would suggest that the usual criticism of the correspondents’ association dinner misses the mark. The conventional critique, about the glitz-o-rama’s corrosive effects on journalists, was voiced by former NBC anchor Tom Brokaw on “Meet the Press” the day after last year’s dinner.
“Look, I think George Clooney is a great guy. I would like to meet Charlize Theron,” Brokaw said. “But I don’t think the big press event in Washington should be that kind of glittering event where the whole talk is about Cristal champagne, taking over the Italian Embassy, who had the best party, who got to meet the most people. That’s another separation between what [journalists are] supposed to be doing and what the people expect us to be doing. I think that the Washington press corps has to look at that.”
Brokaw, a celebrity in his own right, could always choose to boycott the dinner and all the satellite events, of course. But you’d have to bet MSNBC’s corporate guests, and MSNBC, would be mighty disappointed if he did.
Eliza Krigman contributed to this report.