Public affairs: White House communications

This session on White House Communications (public affairs) was one of the lectures I was looking forward to most coming into the PRSSA National Conference. I find political communication to be one of the most fascinating and rewarding fields of public relations. I had high expectations coming into this lecture, and they were met. Combining this section with the speech by Jim Margolis from GMMB (discussing Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign) from earlier in the morning, I couldn’t help but slip back into every ‘West Wing’ day-dream I’ve ever had (which if you know me, is a lot).

This section included two speakers, Taylor Griffin, currently a Partner at Hamilton Place Strategies and former Deputy Communications Director for surrogate and broadcast media for President Bush’s 2004 Bush reelection campaign; and Bob Lehrman a Novelist, Teacher and Former Chief Speechwriter for Vice President Al Gore.

Taylor Griffin began his portion by describing the duties of a press secretary. For those of you who don’t watch West Wing as obsessively as I do (sorry for so many references I really can’t help myself), this seems like on of the most stressful jobs in Washington. The press secretary’s day begins around 4 a.m. reading all of the press coverage from over night and overseas. The day continues with press briefings, attending briefings and working very closely with the president to fully understand what is going on in every department. The press briefings are the most stressful part of the press secretary’s day because from the podium you are speaking to people and leaders all over the world. Words have incredible import and often there are unseen ramifications from the phrases used to deliver news. Griffin stressed how the 24-hour news cycle has changed the job. News is delivered continuously and anyone can post at anytime instead of wire services delivering news at specific times.

Bob Lehrman spoke next about speech writing. He stressed that speech writers are partisan and must care, believe in and be willing to fight for the ideas that his boss wants to make policy. He suggested reading his book, “The Political Speechwriters Companion: A Guide for Speakers and Writers” and gave some quick points about the life of a speech writer:

1. It is an incredible amount of work. You must be able to write and edit.
2. Writers block is unacceptable
3. You must include quotable sound bites for the media that really capture the essence of the speech
4. You are part of a group.  You will work with people who know the nuances of policy.
5. Research will often take longer than writing the actual speech
6. Know your audience
7. Learn to communicate in a bipartisan world: reconcile the difference between what your base wants and what the independent votes you need, want.

The two speakers gave advice about the next steps to take if you’re interested in working in political communication:  get an internship on the Hill (network, understand how the Hill works), come to D.C. to look for jobs, call your local congressman and ask for a meeting, there’s no such thing as being too aggressive…call back and ask again about job opportunities if you don’t hear back!

Stacy Merrick, President

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