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Former White House press secretaries discuss a day in the life
Beth King, Communications Manager, (317) 507-8911
WASHINGTON, D.C. – Managing the president’s messages while keeping cool on the hot seat is an all-important job. Add in new media technologies, the 24-7 news cycle and the onset of citizen journalism and it’s easy to see how the practice of public relations is changing in the life of a White House press secretary, said two former White House press secretaries and a political science professor and author.
Former press secretaries Mike McCurry, Ron Nessen, and Towson University political science professor and author Martha Joynt Kumar addressed a room full of journalists Friday during the 2007 SPJ Convention & National Journalism Conference. The panel was moderated by Mara Liassen, a national political correspondent for NPR. According to the panel, despite the changes to the media landscape, some aspects remain the same.
“It’s a balancing act,” said McCurry, former press secretary to President Bill Clinton. “If you tell the truth, give the media what they need in order to write fair and accurate stories and if you believe in what you’re doing, you will be successful as a press secretary.”
Adding to McCurry’s thoughts, Nessen, the former press secretary to President Gerald Ford, explained that the press secretary’s job is to act as surrogate to the president.
“I answered questions as the president would,” Nessen said. “Every press secretary knows what needs to be done – you relay the messages that need to be said, you put out the news and take care of the bad news yourself.”
Successful press secretaries also recognize how the media works and are interested in maintaining symbiotic relationships, Joynt Kumar said.
“It’s an interesting perspective how journalists and press secretaries communicate,” said Joynt Kumer. “Both sides need each other to convey the information that the administration needs to share with the public.”
Looking to the present and predicting the future, McCurry, Nessen and Joynt Kumer agreed that press secretaries and those covering the current administration are under intense pressure to dissect key messages to inform the public at a time when the public has many choices in how they receive news.
“There is no full time press corps anymore and generalists are now covering complex issues,” Nessen said. “A lot is getting lost.”
Although not used as much today, Joynt Kumer suggested that press secretaries could leverage experts to answer reporter questions.
“Bringing in the experts could help reporters get information to write informed stories,” she said. “This also could shorten the daily briefing itself.”
Beyond how press secretaries do their jobs and what information the media leverages, the panel discussed defining moments in their careers.
“One of the toughest days in my career was the day the Vietnam War ended,” Nessen said. “The evacuation took 17 hours and I was in a terrible mood as it was happening. But, none of that mattered because nobody cares what the press secretary thinks. Your job is to communicate the President’s initiatives.”
Agreeing with Nessen, McCurry said it is imperative to not let personal views get in the way.
“The opinion of the press secretary doesn’t matter,” McCurry said. “You’re not an elected official and when you don’t agree, you tough it out and do your job.”
Founded in 1909 as Sigma Delta Chi, SPJ promotes the free flow of information vital to a well-informed citizenry; works to inspire and educate the next generation of journalists; and protects First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and press. For more information about SPJ, visit www.spj.org.