Tuesday, July 21, 2015

A Fortune in Speakers' Fees

So, here we go again. In my recent post, Of Fees, Futility, and Mike Huckabee, I related how a quote of mine regarding the huge speakers' fees given to politicians and other celebrities was included in an article entitled, The Real Reason Mike Huckabee Keeps Running for President, published in The Daily Dot back on May 6th. And how that quote was taken from a longer quote used in an article entitled Talk Is Not Cheap: Why Do Ex-Politicians Earn Huge Money From Making Speeches?, published in the International Business Times back on Decemeber 18, 2003, and immortalized in my blog post of February 23rd, 2014, Giant Speaking Fees-Fi-Fo-Fum.

Phew! Well now, last month, Fortune magazine ran a piece on this topic, entitled Speech Inflation: Why Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Others Get Massive Speaking Fees, posted on their website on June 11th. The author of the article is Ben Geier, and it has a highlighted blurb at the start that goes like this:

Long after they step away from the limelight, ex-politicians can make a mint off of speaking in public. You can blame the rise of speakers bureaus for some of this.

As you might gather from this, the emphasis in this article is a bit a different, and, oh yeah, you can go click on the title and read it over there, or stick around and read it here. It starts off like this:

In just under two years, President Obama will be out of office, leaving the White House and giving way for another politician to start taking flak. What, pray tell, will he do with all that free time? If his predecessors offer any clue, he won’t do much, but he’ll get paid a lot for it.

Last week, Politico reported that former President George W. Bush makes between $100,000 and $175,000 for every speech he gives and that he has given at least 200 speeches since leaving office in 2009. A bit of simple math translates that activity into more than $30 million for the former president in speech fees alone. Compare that to the relatively paltry $400,000 a president makes a year while in office, and you can see why presidents look forward to their retirement.

Now, Geier provides some historical context, and it begins with someone you might consider an unlikely individual, and for that matter, an unlikely president:

Paying ex-presidents to give speeches really took off with Gerald Ford, Politico notes—which makes sense, since Ford didn’t ever really plan to run for president and likely figured he would stay in the House much longer than he did. Ford took umbrage when he was criticized for making money off of his former job, saying that as a private citizen he could leverage his past however he pleased.

Not long after Ford started hitting the lecture circuit, the Washington Speakers Bureau—home to many high-powered speakers, including George W. Bush and his wife Laura—was founded in 1979. These agencies have played a major role in the skyrocketing fees that high-powered speakers now command.

Now for the part you've all been waiting for, the point where I get to weigh in on the topic. And here it comes:

“Whenever you have a middleman, that adds to the cost,” said Lance Strate, a communications professor at Fordham University. The desire among agencies to maximize fees, and the added ability to negotiate that comes with having professional representation, means organizations are more likely to see speaking fees grow. Plus, the agency system simply provides more access to influential figures like ex-presidents, meaning more groups are able to get the power elites they want, if they are willing to pay the price.

I should add that, while I have done a fair amount of public speaking, and have had some interaction with these agencies, I have not signed up with one, and others that I know who have done so have expressed mixed feelings about it all. But then again, we're talking about academics and intellectuals here, not politicians and entertainers.

Anyway, let's get back to the article:

But why exactly are organizations willing to pay so much for an hour of a former politician’s time? It isn’t for the content, that’s for sure. Generally, speakers and those who hire them are mum on just how much money gets handed over for these engagements—which, by the way, aren’t usually the most thought-provoking or newsworthy speeches. (Politico notes that in one speech to a bowling industry group, Bush let loose the earthshaking bon mot that “bowling is fun.”)

And now back to me for the (obvious) answer to the question of why they get paid the big bucks for banal banter:

“The speech is kind of secondary to … just being able to have a big name at your event,” Strate said. “It might get reported on some form of TV or cable news, which further adds to the prestige and the publicity of the event.”And even if it doesn’t end up on the evening news, almost every conference will put their speeches on YouTube, where there is always a chance it will go viral.
And the article ends with some figures Geier or someone at Fortune figured out, and their implications for the current crop of presidential hopefuls:

Though speakers fees are often kept confidential, we do have a few estimates of what famous ex-politicians make:

  • Bill Clinton supposedly made around $225,000 for a gig last February.
  • Rudy Giuliani, the former mayor of New York and one-time Republican presidential hopeful, is said to have pulled up to $270,000 for a speech. 
  • Sarah Palin, former Alaska Governor, former Republican vice-presidential candidate, and all-time cable news and tabloid fixture—is said to have made $115,000 for a speech in 2011.

These are just the big guns. Even the fringiest of also-rans—think Howard Dean and Herman Cain—have big-time speakers agents and can pull in serious coin for giving a fluffy 45-minute talk. Given that most of the declared 2016 candidates on both sides of the aisle have a fairly slim chance of becoming president, perhaps financial incentives, rather than the pull of public service, has some impact on just how many people run for high office.

This echoes the point made in the article I was quoted in the month before,
The Real Reason Mike Huckabee Keeps Running for President

By the way, in this instance, Geier interviewed me by phone, so I don't have a record of all of my comments to share (and it also accounts for the "kind of" bit in my second quote in the article). And our conversation took place on the same day this piece was posted online, June 11th, which is pretty remarkable, at least from an old school point of view. 

At the time, I was in Denver, at the annual meeting of the Media Ecology Association, so I had to sneak off and find a quiet corner for the phone call. Of course that's the kind of speaking we don't get paid for, but I suppose you might say that's a fee-bull excuse...



Unknown said...

I keep thinking about the predictions of some that in the future many of us will make our livings from social media micropayments. I may never command a $200,000 speaking fee, but I may earn a dollar here or there from commenting or posting original material, or even reposting or aggregating material I've discovered elsewhere. Perhaps our former Presidents are just showing the rest of us how to make a living in the future!

Lance Strate said...

There is quite a difference between those micropayments and these, I guess you'd have to call them macropayments, wouldn't you?