At The George Washington University School of Media and Public Affairs recently, four former press secretaries shared their thoughts and insights on their job and the media in, “Live From The White House: Making and Shaping the News.” Dana Perino and Ari Fleischer were both graduates of President George W. Bush’s administration, while Mike McCurry and Dee Dee Myers served under President Bill Clinton.
Moderated by the school’s director, Frank Sesno, the evening provided animated discussion for students and members of the GWU community, complete with White House secrets about how press secretaries manage their tough roles. It also showed how bright, intuitive and confident press secretaries must be, regardless of their political affiliation or ideology.
Because national security is at stake, the panel discussed the process of divulging information critical to it, almost reminiscent of a chess match. Ms. Myers stated, “You cannot trap yourself with questions or answers [when dealing with the press]. You need to think five moves ahead, because most times your statement is not about what’s happening today, it’s about the future.”
While everyone agreed that the press and reporters are never satisfied, they also said it is a reporter’s job to get the news, and as press secretary you need to respect that. Almost begrudgingly, Ari Fleisher said the White House press conference “has become a television show,” and that, “the real work is done when reporters come into our office and shut the door.”
President Obama’s handling of the crisis in Egypt was applauded, for the most part, as Fleischer pointed out that the President is, “doing well, and walking the tight rope as all presidents do.” But, in policy and on diplomatic issues such as this, all former press secretaries agreed that you cannot be a public advisor to the president; you must do your job as press secretary appropriately.
Dana Perino explained that White House press secretaries need to control their emotions when dealing with press briefings. She said, “You can get caught up with questions and forget that you are reporting to the world,” and forgetting this can lead to the wrong intent of a message.
For the Q&A, the majority of submitted questions focused on advancement in technology and the modern media. Surprisingly, it was the panelist with the most twitter followers [Dana Perino, 30,000] who seemed to rue the trend the most. Taking the traditionalist approach, she confessed that print and broadcast media have lost a lot of senior level talent, along with the cooperative relationships that come with these senior officials and the press secretary.
Mike McCurry discussed challenges of keeping up with the media today, and that learning to slow it down for yourself and the press is where a White House press secretary will succeed. Fleischer closed the case by saying a press secretary needs to slow down to get the facts right – regardless of the eagerness of the press for new information – because the consequences of misinformation are vastly different between a press secretary and a journalist.
By the end of the night, after all stories of success and failure had been traded at the panelists’ expense, their message became clear; vie for a press secretary position at your own risk.