The Gold Standard Press Secretary
By J. Michael Willard
I have a hard time believing that statesman Daniel Webster in the 1800s needed a PR guy next to his US Senate desk passing a note which read: “Boss, use this quote. It’s a better soundbite.”
Today, though, the press secretary is ubiquitous, as common as fruit flies at a watermelon social. The species multiplies with more energy than the propagating-happy rabbit.
Fact is, press secretaries are a rather modern invention, though Abe Lincoln had secretaries while in the White House who — if one stretches the imagination — could, in a pinch, have serve as flacks.
Some of my brethren suggest the word “flack” itself is demeaning. I think not, and have always been proud of the word, embracing it as a gangster might a nickname, like Lucky or Scarface.
It was FDR who designated Stephen Early as the first full-time Presidential press guy in 1933. Stephen had staying power, lasting into the Truman era. He holds the record.
One fellow who only lasted 30 days was Detroit newsman Jerald terHorst. He righteously and rightly resigned after 30 days over Gerald Ford’s pardoning of Richard Nixon for Watergate-related crimes.
The fellow had moxie and values. He’s in my unofficial flackdom hall of fame.
However, it was Early who begat the linage where today every assistant what-not, and whatchamacallit in and out of government has a press secretary, or that highfalutin term, communications director.
Having belonged to the tribe (for a US Senate leader and later a governor), I have respect for the breed. I am aware the job takes more than sharp elbows to survive the equivalent of Palace of Versailles intrigue.
Through serendipity, I have come in contact with various presidential press spokespeople: and, I might add, they were a professional bunch, a notch or 10 above the current Sarah Sanders or her cast-off predecessor, Sean Spicer.
(Note: This gratuitous name-dropping exercise includes Pierre Salinger (Kennedy), Jody Powell (Carter), Marlin Fitzwater (Bush 1) and Mike McCurry (Clinton). Pierre was a co-worker at a PR firm; Jody was a friend; Marlin was kind enough to sit down for a brownbag lunch with my PR team, and McCurry was in my Senate press secretary organization when he worked in the Senate)
The most distinguishing feature of good flacks is, in my view, that they are in the room when decisions are being made and offer their two cents. If not, they might as well be serving tea in the reception room.
If the media doesn’t consider the PR person a player, he or she ceases being professional and conjures a cartoonish image of Nixon, heavy with Watergate tension, shoving a hapless Ron Ziegler on an airport tarmac.
In his five years of service as Nixon’s spokesperson, Ziegler was a pre-SNL version of Donald Trump’s Spicer. Both were Mayberry RFD Barney Fifes, playing second fiddle to flawed characters.
However, the reasons for inadequacies in flackdom abound.
Quite often it’s due to insufficient experience and training; but, sometimes, the job has been dumbed down to pushing out releases and fielding press calls — without strategic aforethought.
The primary PR person in a company or organization should be on the executive team with a seat at the table. There are absolutely no “ifs, “ands” or buts” here. Companies violate this rule at their peril.
So, without further ado, I note a veteran flacks other commandments:
- The PR person should have a feel for news — what makes news and what doesn’t. It is not the media’s job to “ask the right” question, but the newsmakers job to deliver the right messages.
- The PR person should be ahead of the curve when it comes to issues. In other words, he or she should be able to predict to a reasonable degree which messages will resonate with the media (the public).] This doesn’t just mean thinking outside the box. Sometimes it means building a new box.
- The PR person should have both common sense and political sense. The two are kissing cousins. Generally, this is not something one takes off a book shelf or in a classroom.
- The PR person should be fearless in giving his superiors advice. This can be done diplomatically — but it has to be done. We often describe PR as being able to tell a CEO what he already knows but doesn’t want to hear.
- The PR person should be a generalist. He or she should know a little about nearly every topic under the sun. This means getting away from your comfort zones. So, read — a lot.
- A PR person needs a creative streak. The competition to make news is great. You want someone who has a new idea every hour on the hour like Old Faithful.
In other words, there is no precise road map to being a good press secretary. However, it begins and ends with having sufficient gravitas to be seen as an important clog in a company operation.
Woe is the CEO who leaves a savvy press secretary on the other side of the door.