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Case in Point: Unforced Errors by Jennifer Psaki
“How To” books are a dime a dozen and cover every imaginable topic, or so it seems. But one might think another genre would also be popular, even important: “How Not To” publications. That advice can often prove more valuable. It can at least help one avoid missteps.
Take the role of White House Press Secretary, filled since January 20th by former Obama Administration Communications Director Jennifer Psaki. I’ve never seen so many rookie mistakes in a spokesperson in a relatively short time, even while granting her some grace for being “in the arena” in one of the toughest White House jobs, even while performing before a friendly, even fawning audience.
As a former communications professional, I’ve been on both sides of the equation, both as a news reporter and editor in Oklahoma (including a little time at the State Capitol) and a spokesperson, but never as a White House communicator. I never wanted to work there. I have been a Cabinet agency spokesperson (Department of Transportation), congressional press secretary, and campaign media relations professional. I also was the lead spokesman for a national food industry trade association, and occasionally performed media training, as a contractor and subcontractor, to federal workers at the Department of Interior and other agencies, including Park Rangers. They are a unique and wonderful set of dedicated employees. If you’ve ever visited a National Park or National Historical Site, such as a Civil War battlefield, you know this.
As a Department of Interior subcontractor conducting media training about 30 years ago, I played a jerky news reporter who tried to trip up the Park Rangers by peppering them with hostile questions after incidents in the parks in which they worked, like fires. I later converted that experience into serving as a contractor for a long-expired “Trail Boss” program for tech leaders in various federal agencies, run by the General Services Administration. Yes, some federal programs actually come to an end.
Being irresponsible, at least during a training session, was fun. Not so much for the Park Rangers or interagency federal tech leaders, but I think they learned a lot. I was kind of ahead of my time. Jerk reporters are seemingly everywhere now, except many seem to be taking a break since January 20th.
Back to Jen Psaki. I’m sure she’s a nice, intelligent, and competent individual who, barring a major misstep or two, will grow in her job. One does not earn the President’s trust as a spokesperson without demonstrated ability, and having earned confidence to do the job. But she’s off to a rocky start. Don’t take my word for it. Let’s look at some of the mistakes and allow me to share lessons on how not to do one’s job as a press secretary. These are lessons as well for people and public officials who yearn to get in front of cameras and microphones in whatever capacity, at almost any level.
How Not to “Set the Bar.” Jen Psaki opened her first foray with the White House press corps (she briefly served as deputy press secretary in the Obama Administration), she promised to be open and transparent, as all press secretaries do. But once you set that bar, you need to reach it, or pretty close to it. One does not immediately lower it or make it vanish. Apparently, unlike her immediately predecessor, Kayleigh McEnaney, who always seemed eminently prepared, she seems unable to answer most questions. She promises, to the point of derision, to “circle back.”
Another How Not To: Do not schedule and especially participate in a press briefing without being as fully prepared as possible.
Have Easy Access to The Principal: Psaki’s missteps signal a lack of meaningful access to the principal, in this case, the President. Given Biden’s frequent “lids” and light schedule, it’s a fair question to ask. Just ask any prior Press Secretary – you need ample and easy access to the person for whom you are speaking. Reporters will spot someone who doesn’t pretty quickly. They don’t expect you to be able to answer every question, but “circle back” and “I don’t know” only take you so far. Most principals, I’ve discovered, want you to alert them quickly to emerging issues and questions, and keep you informed. At least the smart ones.
Here’s the thing: if you can’t answer questions, reporters will, eventually, find spokespeople who will, often anonymously. That never ends well.
Never Ask for Questions in Advance: When I was a reporter some 40 years ago, I always took umbrage when spokespeople, or the principals themselves, asked for my questions “in advance.” Some reporters, of course, especially at smaller trade publications or online services, offer to do so to facilitate an interview request. That’s fine. But never ask. And at the White House, or any federal government agency? Umm, no.
Never Ask to Submit Questions in Writing: Even more offensive than asking for questions in advance is to ask for them in writing. Again, it is just fine if someone offers up questions that way, as the Washington Examiner’s Byron York and others do via email every so often. But again, one never asks. And when reporters do submit questions in writing, in this case of the Capitol Police about the January 6th violence,it is a very good idea to answer them, or at least try. The Capitol Police could apparently use a good spokesperson.
Rarely, If Ever, Throw Agency Heads Under the Bus: Another Psaki mistake happened just this week when she undermined the new head of the Centers of Disease Control, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, who helped lead a White House Coronavirus conference on the pandemic. She reiterated CDC policy that schools could safety reopen because, science. But politically, that is offensive to teacher unions, most of whom seem determined to keep schools shut down. Psaki said that Dr. Walensky was speaking “in her personal capacity.” Um, that strains credulity well beyond the breaking point. There was a better way to finesse that, if one is trying to minimize political fallout, especially when increasing numbers of Americans are not on the side of teachers unions, at least on this question.
Do not mock a reporter’s question: Psaki infamously mocked a reporter’s question about the newest branch of our military, the US Space Force. It is okay, on occasion, to mock an obviously biased, ignorant, or negative question (think CNN’s Jim Acosta), especially when it’s made more to score points than to extract information. That was not the case with the Space Force question. She not only demeaned the reporter but a new agency of the Federal government. That’s not a good look. Also, reporters have what are known as “beats,” and sources. If you’re a reporter assigned to cover the Department of Defense and the new Space Force, having your questions mocked is not appreciated, and invites disrespect if not resentment.
That brings up another bit of advice: Own up to your mistakes when you make them, as quickly as possible. The media and the public will respect you for it. It a lesson that the Trump White House could have learned as well, even though they were never going to get a break from the White House press corps. Even an old mistake, including using a homophobic slur against a sitting senior United States Senator.
Here’s another bugaboo: the accusation of “lying” is tossed around way, way too much. A lie is a deliberate falsehood. I hate the overuse of “Biden lies” as much as I did “Trump lies.” You can be wrong and mistaken in your beliefs and pronouncements, sometimes badly. You can change your mind. That doesn’t always make it a “lie.” Good reporters (may they Rest In Peace) should know that lying is high bar – one needs to prove that the principal knew he or she was lying. That word is being tossed around way too cavalierly these days, and that has consequences.
A corollary: Always tell the truth as you know it. Never lie. Period. I shouldn’t have to explain why. If caught, you lose all credibility with the media and will never be trusted again, even though some people do seem to get away with it, on occasion. That’s the exception more than the rule.
There is a good reason for the tradition, at least in the White House, of the departing press secretary to leave behind a flak jacket for the new one. It is an overused cliche, but still true: being a White House press secretary is like drinking from a fire hose. And being human, press secretaries, especially new ones during the inevitably chaotic early days of a new Administration, will make them. Just ask Sean Spicer. They deserve a grace period (I don’t like calling it a “honeymoon”). But some mistakes are over the top and deserve to be called out for what they are. Let’s hope she learns, and quickly.
In a future post, I’ll describe the five ways to respond to an attack in the media (social or otherwise), and the four sets of rules that guide interviews with the media. This will be fun and maybe useful.Published in