The Press Secretary: A Needed Voice at the Table

By Michael Willard

If the press secretary is not at the table when policy decisions are being discussed, he or she might as well have a teapot in hand to serve India’s finest to guests in the anteroom.

On occasion when I have conducted crisis simulations, I have inquired about the presence of a communications person. If missing, I figured it was just a slip-up and said person was merely late to the game.

This was often not the case.

The communications expert is often marginalized. For any organization concerned with corporate or political policy issues, this is like leaving your third base coach in the locker room folding towels. It’s not smart.

My view stems from being a communications director for a US Senate leader as well as later for a governor named Rockefeller. It helped to have, I believe, a thorough grounding in wire service and newspaper reporting.

In other words, I was in the room and contributing to strategy sessions leading up to meetings with world leaders, as well as in the meetings themselves. Often, my role was to be the fly on the wall.

I was the quiet fellow with the clipboard at the boss’s side, whether in Moscow, Tehran, or Beijing. My advice was offered before and after the meeting — never during. Sometimes it was taken, sometimes not.

The important fact is it was given.

However, I viewed all issues through the prism of my experience and what I believed would resonate with the press and the public, which, in essence, is one and the same. Newspeople are filters to public opinion.

An aspect of this is for the news media to consider the press secretary a player, someone in the “know”, even if the spokesperson’s mouth is often screwed tighter than a Mason jar for professional reasons.

Otherwise, the press secretary ceases to be a professional and conjures a cartoonish image. Think Richard Nixon shoving his hapless flack, Ron Ziegler, during Watergate tension. Or Donald Trump’s Sean Spicer and his fantastical crowd estimate at the inauguration.

Through serendipity, I have come in contact with various presidential press spokespeople; and, I might add, they were a professional bunch, whether for Democrats or for the GOP.

In an exercise of gratuitous name-dropping, I include Pierre Salinger (Kennedy), Jody Powell (Carter), Marlin Fitzwater (Reagan and Bush №1), and Mike McCurry (Clinton).

Pierre was a co-worker at the PR company Burson-Marsteller; Jody was a long-time friend; Marlin was kind enough to sit down for a brown-bag lunch with my PR team at B-M, and McCurry was in my Senate press secretary organization I formed when he worked in the Senate.

They were all, I might add, in the room when decisions were being debated and were not afraid to offer their two cents and occasionally a half dollar.

However, the reasons for inadequacies in flack-dom abound.

Quite often it’s due to insufficient experience, but sometimes, the job has been dumbed down such that the press secretary merely pushes out mind-numbing press releases.

The primary PR person in a company or organization should be on the executive team with a seat at the table. Companies violate this rule at their peril.

So, without further ado, I note a few other commandments:

  • The press secretary should have a feel for news, what makes news and what doesn’t It’s not the media’s job to ask the right questions, but the newsmaker’s job to deliver the right messages.
  • The press secretary 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.
  • The press secretary should have both common sense and political sense. The two are kissing cousins. Generally, this is not something one takes off a bookshelf or in a classroom.
  • The press secretary should be fearless in giving his superiors advice. This can be done diplomatically, but it has to be done.
  • The press secretary 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 press secretary 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.

There is no precise road map to being a good press secretary. However, it begins and ends with having sufficient gravitas. Woe is the CEO who leaves a savvy press secretary on the other side of the door.

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I am a novelist, painter, songwriter and essayist but my day job is elevating the profile of authors, entertainers and business executives.

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