The New White House Press Secretary — Lessons for All of Us

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President Bush has chosen Tony Snow, the Fox News commentator, to be the new White House press secretary.

Frankly, this is of far more interest to Washington pundits than to me.

However, analyzing the job of White House press secretary provides some valuable lessons about what a good communicator should strive to accomplish.  It also demonstrates what can happen when a spokesperson gets knocked off track.

The Washington Post explained Snow’s challenges in a story today:

A former director of speechwriting for President Bush’s father, Snow views himself as well positioned to ease the tensions between this White House and the press corps because he understands both politics and journalism, said sources familiar with the President’s decision.

Further discussing the situation, the Post continued:

Outgoing spokesman Scott McClellan, whose tight-lipped style led to strained relations with reporters, announced last week that he is stepping down as part of a White House reorganization being spearheaded by the new chief of staff, Joshua B. Bolten. Snow will be the first career journalist to serve in the position since President Gerald R. Ford tapped Ron Nessen, an NBC correspondent, in 1974.

A senior administration official said last night that Bush is aware of the “perception of disdain for the institution of the media” on the part of the White House and wants a spokesman who will forge “a good working relationship” with journalists.

Just what does all this tell us? A number of things, actually:

  1. Reporters expect spokespeople (communicators) to be “in the know.” Don’t go out with partial or sketchy information. It will undermine your credibility.
  2. Communicators serve two masters: they are advocates for their clients/organizations, but also for the media.  This can be tricky.
  3. If you don’t like reporters, they won’t like you. Communicators should respect the work journalists do and understand that not every story will be positive.
  4. Reality aside, even the slightest perception of dishonesty with journalists will ruin your relationships with them — forever.
  5. The trust of journalists is built up slowly over time and sits upon a foundation of honest dialogue.
  6. Reporters are not naive. They know you sometimes can’t answer their questions. They will accept this on occasion. However, you can’t decline to comment day after day. Find things you can talk about.
  7. Don’t take it personally. Sometimes, words become heated and the dialogue turns nasty. Put it in context and you’ll be able to laugh about it later over a few beers.

These truths are as important for the everyday communications work we all do as they are for the high profile interactions of the White House press secretary.

Spend some time watching the new press secretary on TV when you have the chance. I guarantee you’ll pick up ideas for your own communications efforts. And on occasion, you’ll be treated to some very entertaining exchanges.