By Priya Ramesh (@newpr)
As we celebrate Presidents Day today, I thought of dedicating this post to the nation’s Chief Communication Officer who serves a dual role in providing information to the media, the nation as well as acting as the President’s mouthpiece. Ari Fleischer, former White House Press Secretary to George W. Bush (2001-2003) in his book, ‘Taking the Heat: The President, the Press and My Years in the White House, says, “Serving as the White House press secretary was the most rewarding, engaging, exciting, enjoyable job I could ever imagine holding. It also was the toughest, hardest, most grinding and grueling job I could ever imagine holding. By definition the job was paradoxical. To this day, I don’t know how I could love so much something that seemed so hard to do.”
In my last seven or more years in communications and PR, the greatest joy to this day is to see a PR representative in the boardroom providing sound counsel to key decision-makers. PR is NOT just about writing releases, attending community events and scheduling media interviews. The true zenith for a PR pro is when he/she is perceived as the voice of the public and the face of the organization acting like a bridge between the two. But this takes certain leadership and communication traits and here are some tips we could try to imbibe from our former press secretaries:
1. Communicate clearly and effectively: Sounds very basic right? Now picture a crisis situation when the chances are you the PR pro has been invited for the very first time to draft messaging for the President of your company. This is no time for training on the go. The ability to first of all rally your management to see through the customers’ eyes or in a crisis situation, the victims’ eyes and then draft official responses that doesn’t compromise your company’s reputation but at the same time offer a transparent report of the situation demands a high level of clear and effective communication. Every successful leader by default has to be an effective communicator which stems from clear thinking. Now if you want to be in boardroom or the Oval room, trying to provide counsel to your leadership, just multiply the level of your communication effficiency by ten. Former Clinton press secretary, Dee Dee Myers elaborates on this during a speech to Elon University.
2. Learn how to collaborate: The second most important C-letter word after “communication” in order to be considered a trusted counsel for your organization is “Collaboration.” You cannot operate in a vaccum or practice a cowboy management style that doesn’t require a group approach to making decisions. Sometimes a good leader also does a great job of shepherding the team to arrive at the best decision. From a press secretary’s perspective, a collaborative style both within and with the media is what the job demands. Pay careful attention to the choice of words used by William Daley, Chief of Staff in his email announcing the appointment of Jay Carney as President Obama’s new press secretary: “He will bring greater clarity to our structure and roles and will enhance coordination and collaboration among us.”
3. Stay ahead of the 24/7 news cycle: Dana Perino, former press secretary for President George W. Bush makes a good point during her talk at the George Washington University which was covered by New York Times in a story titled, “Secrets of the White House Press Secretaries. She said, “The worst thing that could happen was to be surprised at the podium.” Thanks to the 24/7 news cycle and social networks like Facebook and Twitter becoming the birthplace of people’s movements (recently witnessed in Egypt), communications officers are now required to stay ahead of the ever changing news cycles and constantly prepare for unexpected twists and turns the media might take on a given topic or situation that has possible implications to your company’s image.
4. Walk the line between lying and withholding information: Time and again on a daily basis, the press secretary’s number one responsibility is to provide the right information to the media but in matters pertaining to national security or other serious issues, the press secretary is also forced to withhold information. Is this borderline lying? Are you fulfilling your role as the Chief Communication Officer if you withhold information from your key constituents? This is probably a haunting question that every press secretary deals with especially in crisis situations. Good advice on this dilema comes from Michael McCurry who was Bill Clinton’s press secretary who reflects on his tenure and says, ” it was acceptable at times to “tell the truth slowly,” and that there were times when disclosure “might put someone’s life in jeopardy” or violate “political or diplomatic protocols, but you can never lie,” because doing so would destroy the press secretary’s credibility.”
I like how Michael McCurry sums up the role of the nation’s spokesperson which is applicable to pretty much any communications officer’s role in the boardroom, “I’m generally in favor of lowering the temperature in the [briefing] room, you don’t have to win every argument. It’s a place where you have to get your information across and develop long-term relationships… But it’s also so different than it was 15 years ago when I was doing it. It’s much less about substance and so much more about the daily battle on TV.”