The fax came through on a busy Wednesday afternoon advertising an event to come hear then-White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer speak in DuPont Circle after work that day. It sounded so fancy, so celebrity. I was in the midst of my second week as a Capitol Hill intern, and wanting to go to every “cool” event in town, so of course I went. The varnished oak desks, regal curtains in the meeting rooms, and pearly white features of the Capitol dome were already enough to make any 19 year-old political science major awe struck while “working” in DC, let alone the opportunity to hear a White House official speak in person. I didn’t even really understand what a press secretary truly did at the time, but I had always seen them on TV answering important questions.
The event was packed to the rim. The room was just as ornate as the committee rooms on Capitol Hill, and due to the length of the line to get in I was a tad late. I stood in the back and listened to Mr. Fleischer unpack what it was like to be the President’s chief spokesperson. By this time in the job, he had weathered the 2000 campaign, September 11th, and activity in the Middle East was growing tense. He came across as a friendly guy, and spoke with the prowess of a professional who was right on his game. I soaked in every word. Then it came time for the question and answer portion of the talk. Students from universities and colleges from all across the country crowded around the microphone for a chance to get in their question, and some with the hopes of asking a question to stump one of the White House’s most public faces.
I noticed how he answered every question with ease, and how he provided questioners satisfaction on answers regarding sensitive information. In response to the, “what advice do you have for us?” question, Mr. Fleischer said this – “We’ve all had to start out here before, and we know how hard it can be. So help each other. Ask people for their time, people are willing to help you in this town.” I never forgot it.
For me, that’s where it started.
Tips to Succeed as a Press Secretary on Capitol Hill
The job of a press secretary wasn’t about the questionable level of glamour, but about the unique and useful craft of providing a message to an audience for accurate consumption. Like a puzzle, I loved pouring over a collection of sentences and words to carefully construct exactly what someone was trying to say. I began pursuing more communications professionals with a simple interest in what they did and how, and wondered if it was a skill I could ever harness. Then I became a reporter.
I spent a handful of years on the other side of the equation as the one pursuing the story, chasing the lead, developing numerous sources, trying to break news every day, and chopping up press releases (and often admittedly just hitting ‘delete’ on most). My attention was limited, and unless I knew it would hit my editor’s appetite, I wouldn’t give it the time of day. I dealt with countless non-answers from public relations professionals on controversial issues, angry companies and/or sources disputing my story, and begging experts for their time to analyze certain technical aspects of stories I chased. The news I obtained had to be first, fast, and accurate. And then I made the jump to the other side.
Over the years as a media professional, I’ve worked with countless reporters (including some former colleagues), and I’ve worked with a number of press secretaries as well. In the last two years, I’ve been serving as a press secretary myself on Capitol Hill and I absolutely love my job. So, what’s it like being a press secretary on Capitol Hill? No two days are ever the same. Here is my unsolicited advice:
1) It takes self-control.
Always, always, always stay calm. You will have days where you are running around with four different stories breaking, and your boss isn’t aware yet and reporters are incessantly calling you for comment. Stay calm. There will be instances where the speech that everyone poured over for hours with the boss’s edits gets lost somehow, or information leaks that shouldn’t, it rains on your outdoor press conference, there’s a typo in your big joint press release, or the reporter you always thought would run your story just won’t, but stay calm. When any of these scenarios occur or worse, it’s usually not a good idea to emotionally react. By emotionally react, I mean knee-jerk statements that can get you, your office, or your boss in trouble.
“The lesson I learned was that first reports of breaking events are often wrong because facts emerge over time, so government sources need to be guarded about what we say and how early we say it. Sometimes it’s best if we don’t say anything at all until additional facts can be gathered.” – Ari Fleischer, Former White House Press Secretary under G.W. Bush
Often times, when an issue arises that is counter to your boss’s message and you know it will be covered wall-to-wall by the media, stop. Sometimes entertaining what opposite messaging does or says and responding to it only further escalates the issue and draws more attention to the opposite message. You wind up playing defense instead of offense. Undoubtedly, reporters will contact you for a reaction comment but think it through. Stay calm, don’t emotionally react, and then decide the best course of action. More often than not, the news cycle for the opposite message passes after a day, but if you respond it may last two days or longer.
We’ve all heard of the press secretary who posted an opinion or photo on social media that he or she shouldn’t have. Social media blunders can easily end your career in a matter of seconds. One hasty, emotionally reactive tweet or Facebook post can cause a viral firestorm that could result in your forced resignation. If you’re not sure you should post it, just don’t. If there’s even a hint of doubt, just don’t post it. Social media has a notably semi-permanent shelf life, and going on the record even socially memorializes your opinion or reaction. Across the spectrum, there are communications professionals who view themselves as “too small” for a reporter to care about their social media posts and just the opposite, there are some communications professionals who think everyone cares about every little thing they post. Find a happy medium.
In this job, you will make people angry, upset, or annoyed and they will react out of their anger. Take nothing personally. Your job is representing your boss and/or the committee you work for, and there will be times where your boss’s agenda is counter to that of other Members. There will be times where reporters get upset with you for one reason or another, other offices will get upset with you for one reason or another (speaking order at press conferences, last minute schedule changes beyond your control, etc.), and someone somewhere will get upset with you for one reason or another. Save yourself the mental anguish and don’t take it personally. Let it roll off. I like to refer to Proverbs 19:11, which says: A person’s wisdom yields patience; it is to one’s glory to overlook an offense. So, if you’re offended, it can often be for your good to overlook it. Another great verse is James 1:19, which says: My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires. Quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry – words to live by.
Also Former White House Press Secretary Dana Perino has said one of the first rules of being the chief White House spokesperson is to never answer hypothetical questions, and this couldn’t be more true. It takes sufficient self-control to not take the bait and answer the ‘what if?’ hypothetical questions that reporters may throw out there. They are trying to break a story, and hypothetical answers are such a frequent and easy trap for your words to fall into, winding up right in a headline. Stay calm, and stick to your guns.
“The best journalists are troublemakers, pot-stirrers, naysayers, dirt-eaters.” – Ari Fleischer, Former White House Press Secretary under G.W. Bush
“Reporters are taught to challenge everything and to question everybody, they’re trained to find the truth and the facts, no matter where they lie.” – Ari Fleischer, Former White House Press Secretary under G.W. Bush
2) You must have humility.
Your mistakes are broadcast to thousands of people for the entire world to see. Part of being a good press secretary is having the humility to accept and learn from edits. You want your manager and/or your boss to edit your work before the final draft is reviewed. A term called ‘the pride of authorship’ can often trick a communications professional into thinking they are the only ones who can say it the best. However, never be too prideful not to weigh, consider, and accept edits from others. A fresh pair of eyes reviewing your work is to help you, not put you down. Be secure enough in your ability and skills to welcome edits from those on your team.
In this job, you have to be humble enough to be open to correction and receiving constructive critique. Don’t be defensive, and as mentioned earlier, don’t take it personally. The people that hired you to do this job know it isn’t easy, and they want you to succeed. Don’t fight back when they are only trying to help you get better. Everyone will do this differently, and the greatest learning curve with the job is learning the people you work with and how they work. Two verses I go to for help with this are:
Whoever heeds life-giving correction will be at home among the wise. Those who disregard discipline despise themselves, but the one who heeds correction gains understanding. – Proverbs 15:31-32
Whoever heeds discipline shows the way to life, but whoever ignores correction leads others astray. – Proverbs 10:17
Part of humility in the job is to make your boss famous, not you. And most of all, the goal to strive for is to make Jesus famous. As communicators, we don’t pursue the opportunity to be in the headline. It’s a primary tenant of our job to get our boss in the headline, as it’s their hard work that we were hired to promote. The press secretaries who are often most humble are generally the ones who garner the most respect, are the most sought after, harbor the most trust, and have more stable careers. These people are the ones who are not seeking the lime light for themselves, but seeking recognition for whom they work. In taking a humble posture in the role, your character brings notice to who Jesus is in your life. Keeping your eyes on Christ, our humble Savior, is the most important aid in this area to your career (and your life as a whole). It’s easy to get swept up into trying to build your own brand, market yourself, become entangled with impression management, and trying to promote yourself. Resist, and never lose focus that this is a humble job that is not about you. Two verses I depend on as truth in this area are:
He must become greater; I must become less. – John 3:30
But he gives us more grace. That is why Scripture says: “God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble.” – James 4:6
“On the Hill, staffers never go on TV. The job of a Hill press secretary was to be behind the scenes.” – Ari Fleischer, Former White House Press Secretary under G.W. Bush
Another way to show humility and accept wisdom from others is to pursue good quality mentors. Pursue a number of them. Find people in the field of communications that are in the job you would want years from now and learn everything about what it took for them to get there, how they do the job, what they like about the job, and what they want to do next. Ask to meet with these people once a month or as often as schedules may allow. Don’t be shy about pursuing senior communications professionals. Look for new, outside the box ways to do the job of press secretary from those who have been doing the job for years. Mentors possess an invaluable wealth of wisdom from a long and successful career, and it will only help you to be humble enough to pursue a multitude of these types of professionals in your career. It takes humility to admit you don’t know everything, so show a willingness to learn. No one likes to work with a ‘know-it-all’ or someone who is continuously trying to prove they’re right. Likewise, be willing to help newcomers to the field as you move up the ladder. Invest the time and effort into developing your team well, and teach them by providing opportunities on the job that will stretch them professionally. It may be a risk for you, but the long-term reward is that you have a motivated team member who can step in to help with increased value. Their success will ultimately reflect on you and how you invested in their career. One day you may need them on your team or call them boss!
When you’re in meetings, no matter how monotonous, take notes. Take lots and lots and lots and lots of notes. Take notes on subjects you’ve already heard a hundred times over. Take notes of schedules, of who is saying what and why, take notes of technical topics of legislation, take notes about who is mad at who and why. You may need to go back and look at notes later as a reminder on a topic. There have been numerous times where I have taken notes on an issue that I thought I’d never use, only to find reporters asking me questions on that very issue. The worst cost to you in taking notes is a few dollars more to buy extra notebooks. Don’t try to remember it all, just take notes. Even if you think you’ve heard it before, write it down. These three verses have also helped me in this area:
For through wisdom your days will be many, and years will be added to your life. – Proverbs 9:11
When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with humility comes wisdom. – Proverbs 11:2
The one who gets wisdom loves life; the one who cherishes understanding will soon prosper. – Proverbs 19:8
3) You have to really love it.
The job of a good Capitol Hill press secretary is often a 24 hour, seven days a week job. You’re rarely completely disconnected. The bible verse I keep in mind most for this area is this:
Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving. – Colossians 3:23-34
In this job, reporters will ask you questions when you have no answers to provide. Reporters love conflict, and because they love conflict they will always look for it or try to create it. You don’t need to love conflict, but it helps to love the strategy in mitigating conflict and navigating crisis communications.
“[The press] are biased in favor of conflict. Much as has been said and written about media bias. Many Republicans, especially conservatives, believe the press are liberals who oppose Republicans and Republican ideas. I think there’s an element of truth to that, but it is complicated, secondary, and often nuanced. More important, the press’s first and most pressing bias is in favor of conflict and fighting.” – Ari Fleischer, Former White House Press Secretary under G.W. Bush
“Because the White House press corps are driven to cover conflict, no matter who they cover. Conflict is juicy, conflict sells, the public is interested in conflict, and the White House press corps respond by providing it….Conflict is easier to cover.” – Ari Fleischer, Former White House Press Secretary under G.W. Bush
It’s a delicate dance, but always be aware of pending conflicts on the horizon, as they will more often than not end up as a news story.
You have to love proofreading. Proofread, proofread, proofread. Attention to detail is paramount and you’ll never regret taking one more time to read over your content before submitting it out to the masses. Always check your blind carbon copy (BCC) and carbon copy (CC) lines as there are few things worse than disclosing your entire media list in the CC line when it was meant for the BCC line of an email.
Your job as press secretary is to protect your boss and/or office, and to provide helpful and accurate information to consumers of information. You make news, but you are not the news. It’s a job you have to love to do it well. It can often be a thankless job. You rarely get public credit, and you’re the first one to take responsibility for mistakes. But in my opinion, it’s one of the best jobs in town. You have to love the fast pace (at times break neck speed), the drive, the hungry Capitol Hill press corps, at times being online 24/7, and above all – helping your boss get his or her message out effectively for all to see.
There will be days you are exhausted, there will be days of working for 16 hours straight, there will be days you don’t get to take lunch, and there will be days you make mistakes. It’s a job that few are trusted to do, and it’s a blast. Love it and enjoy it!
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