“A Day in the Life of a (Federal Government) Press Secretary/Communications Director” | PRSA-NCC
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“A Day in the Life of a (Federal Government) Press Secretary/Communications Director”

July 25, 2014

Communicators are the rhetorical muscle behind the lobbyists who walk the halls of government.  They create and shape the messages for the media, the public and stakeholders.  There is also no pressure cooker quite like Capitol Hill. Communicators on the Hill are branded as political operatives but also branded that they can take the heat.

On July 16, the National Capital Chapter of the Public Relations Society of America led a professional development: “A Day in the Life of a (Federal Government) Press Secretary/Communications Director.”  The speakers included: Reid Walker, communications director, US Senate Committee on Indian Affairs; Tiffany McGuffee, communications director for U.S. Representative Phil Roe (R-TN); Pedro Ribeiro, director, Office of Communications, Executive Office of DC Mayor Gray; and Ryan Daniels, press secretary, U.S. Department of Transportation. The panelists spoke to how they work with media, both proactively and reactively; how politics impacts their work and decision-making; and how they work with allied communicators and opponents.

Across the board, the panelists agreed they start their days by checking media clips, breaking news and any pertinent news related to their organization, information that was disseminated to them in the evening prior, and, most importantly, checking to see where they and their boss are quoted. As McGuffee stated, “It’s weird to start the day by Googling yourself.” The panelists agreed that adaptability is the key to their career success.

Panelists provided insight on the following:

Monitoring media
Panelists use Factiva, HootSuite, TV Eyes and monitoring tools that are privy to folks on the Hill.

Shoestring budgets
Many press secretaries don’t have funds for big campaigns. Hill resources are contained and as such, press secretaries aim to amplify their messages through constituents. In turn, they also meet with external groups who are on the opposite side of their issues to help craft messages.

Social media
The panelists all had their own Twitter accounts, but don’t utilize their personal accounts as they don’t want to distract the attention from their bosses. Twitter helps build up constituents, so they tweet from their appropriate work accounts. However, if your role is a communicator, then this may be different. One example is Harry Reid’s communications director who tweets throughout the day.

Varying viewpoints
Press secretaries, as with any PR practitioner, sometimes find themselves at a crossroads with their supervisor. When asked what they do when they don’t agree on a situation, the counsel given was to make your argument as strong as you can but at the end of the day, “your general is your general.”

Providing counsel vs. implementing tactics
The panelists dedicate the majority of their days to addressing inquiries in real-time. For them, speed is critical. They are strategic in terms of providing counsel to their stakeholders on how to respond to inquiries. Strategic communications such as response plans and communications tools are typically handled after hours when they have the ability to concentrate.

Subject matter experts
The panelists utilize the collective knowledge of the subject-matter experts in their industry and of their  coalition partners by referring them whenever they aren’t able to answer a particular question, or prefer not to answer it. This is particularly valuable during situations when they haven’t taken a position on an issue they wish to avoid, or if they simply want to be a trusted resource to a communications director, press secretary, or reporter.

When referring reporters to subject-matter experts on their staff, they ask that it be “off the record.” By providing “off the record” subject-matter experts, they are providing press secretaries, communications directors, and reporters with an important resource that provides them with crucial knowledge they can use when they do reach someone to whom they’ve referred outside of your organization.

Work/life balance
The panelists emphasized that the higher up you are on the chain; the less personal time you have. In particular, the more you are on the record professionally, the less time you have personally.

The panelists also spoke to what PR practitioners can do in order to garner their attention.

  • When emailing information, press releases, etc., material sent at the end of the day receives more attention and priority than material sent earlier in the day.
  • Unless it’s urgent, material received earlier in the day won’t be read until the next morning, and then it will be prioritized by “last in, first out.”
  • When presenting information or requesting a conference, people representing coalitions and alliances get priority attention.
  • While press secretaries try to assemble information from all perspectives for their bosses, their time is limited. Those who offer a perspective representing more than one organization will appear to have more clout and will get priority treatment.
  • If you want your message to be heard or read, make it relevant to a current event or issue important to the office or agency you are trying to contact. To get the ear of the press secretary or communications director, tie your message in with something relevant to that member of Congress or federal agency that they are currently dealing with. A “news hook” tie-in grabs attention with communications professionals of all stripes, not just media.  
  • If you want your issue or event to really stand out, tell a good story, particularly one with a strong human angle. Federal legislators, agency heads and their communications staff are human, and they can better identify with a story that puts a human face on the issue. Come in with poignant examples that tell of individual hardship, rewards, failure or success. Numbers and statistics are relatively meaningless without a humanizing example.
  • Know your audience and make sure your message directly impacts them in some meaningful way. When you have a story to tell, it doesn’t matter how important it is to you and your members unless it is also important to the person you are telling. Explain how your issue impacts a member’s or federal agency’s key constituencies and you will get their attention.
  • Show pictures. Images trump written words and are paramount in trying to get your message across, particularly if it’s a complex message. A single compelling image can create the opening for a much more detailed explanation via written or spoken words.
  • Be persistent when trying to get the ear of a press secretary. The squeaky wheel gets the grease, and so too do the more persistent purveyors of information. If you have a newsworthy, relevant, and humanistic story with a point of view representing more than that of just one organization, persistence will usually get you in the door.
  • Make sure your content is mobile-enabled. Top communications professionals are relying more and more on small, hand-held mobile devices to view content. If it isn’t able to be easily read on a mobile device, it may not get read at all. And by all means, avoid using PDFs on mobile devices as they’re static and hard to read.
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