Lessons from a White House Press Secretary

11.12.2012 | Melissa Cafiero

I recently attended the PRSA Puget Sound annual meeting where I had an opportunity to hear Scott McClellan, former White House press secretary under President George Bush, provide a spokesperson’s perspective from inside the West Wing.

After hearing and considering Scott’s comments, it reminded me that some of the lessons he learned are important to recall and apply across the board in public relations. Here are three I want to highlight:

  1. It’s OK to disagree. Scott openly proclaimed his disagreement with former President Bush’s decision to begin the Iraq War. At the same time, however, Scott acknowledged his belief that Bush was sincere in his approach to the war and that Bush believed it was the right decision at the time. While Scott’s personal beliefs differed from those of his boss, he remained committed to the job and performed at 100 percent. As public relations professionals, it is our job to develop a point of view and provide our recommendation on a number of situations, issues, plans, etc. But when our perspective doesn’t necessarily coincide with our client or boss, we still have an obligation to do the job we were hired to do – and do it well.
  2. Push for information you need to make a decision. Two and a half months after taking the White House press secretary job, Scott faced having to exonerate Scooter Libby in the identity leak of Central Intelligence Agency officer Valerie Plame Wilson. Particularly in crisis situations, PR pros won’t always have as much information as we’d like before making a decision. When possible, though, we should seek to gather all the information possible to form an educated opinion and decide next steps.
  3. Remain nimble as the industry evolves. The rise of blogs and social media impacted Scott during his tenure as press secretary. Rather than ignore it, or see how this new media approach played out, Scott embraced it: He was the first press secretary to allow a blogger into the media room. He also offered Web chats and provided video tours of the briefing rooms. We won’t always be successful in every risk we take, but it’s important to try different approaches and shift our strategies and tactics based on new technology.

So, what do you think? Is McClellan’s advice applicable to your role? What are your experiences as a spokesperson?



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Filed under: EXPERTISE, INDUSTRY, PR trends, Strategy

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