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Pressing Matters

Will the Job of Press Secretary Ever Be the Same Again?

As the new Biden Administration continues its attempt to transition, and the list of White House staff and cabinet members begins to slowly be revealed, there has been an interesting and probably inordinate focus on one particular job — presidential Press Secretary. At the time of this writing, Biden aides Karine Jean-Pierre, Symone Sanders, and Kate Bedingfield were rumored to be equally under strong consideration. There is, logically, a bit more interest in the selection since two of the three, as Black women, would represent history-making firsts, if selected.

In the greater scheme of things, of course, the position is much more important inside newsrooms than in our living rooms, but the visibility that comes with the gig puts it in the spotlight.

Yet in the conversation about who might get the job, few have asked what might be a more interesting question — “Who would really want it right now?”

Generally, there are many reasons to want to be official spokesperson for the most powerful person in the world, the most obvious being that description in itself.

There is also the household name recognition, to the extent that is desirable. And at the end of a successful run, history shows there can be years of paid punditry, corporate board appointments, speaking engagements, and book contracts, not to mention appearances on Dancing with the Stars.

But is it all worth it?

At any level, but especially in the White House, Press Secretary can be one of the toughest and most stressful jobs in politics. Between the hours, the never-ending demands from all sides and the constant stress of wondering if your words or those of your boss will be misconstrued, misinterpreted, or misquoted, there’s a reason why the person in that position is almost always the first in any Administration to step away at the first opportunity. Predictably, the current Administration has had a burn rate of three press secretaries and an interim within four years, even more than usual.

It is also a job that is largely misunderstood, by nearly everyone, including many press secretaries.

The confusion begins with what seem like simple questions: “Who do you work for — the President, the press, or the American people?” Is it your job to pitch what the boss is selling? To make sure the media has access to do their jobs correctly? To make sure the public at large is well-informed about decisions that may impact their lives?

The most accurate answer is “All of the Above” and press secretaries who enter with a strong sense of ethics and a sense of duty to uphold freedom of the press struggle mightily to maintain a delicate balance between them all.

Unfortunately, it seldom works out that way. The demand to lean one way or the other is often too great. That’s where the problem begins, because few understand the nature of the role outside of the person in the role itself.

For that reason, being a press secretary means also to be in a constant internal battle for access, input, trust, and respect. Nobody really wants you in the rooms where you need to be.

Many top staff see it as only a communications position, but it is also an important policy position — or should be. Image impacts the ability to advance policy, and knowing how to interpret the media and public impact of policies can be critical. But your bosses often would rather you just put the desired spin on their decisions, rather than be involved in the decision yourself.

You are also never completely trusted — by your boss, by the press, by anyone. You are either the potential source of a leak because of your proximity to the press, or the source of disinformation because of your proximity to your boss.

But those are the challenges that have always existed in the job. There are those who did it really well — in the modern age David Gergen, Jay Carney, and Jim Brady come to mind, among a few others. It can be thankless, but also rewarding in its own way if you believe in what you do.

The pertinent question for today’s world, however, is whether, in the 21st century the role of press secretary is necessary in the way that it used to be.

Already an undervalued and underestimated job, TrumpWorld has rendered it almost useless. Donald’s Trump’s string of spokespuppets transformed the traditional role from important source of information to shameless cheerleader, damaging their own personal credibility and that of the role itself.

And there is a legitimate question of whether anyone new in the role can ever really go back, or if going back is even desirable.

Despite Donald Trump’s absolute abuse of the “direct to the people” possibilities of Twitter, leaping over the interpretation of the press to go straight to the people you represent is not in itself a terrible idea, as media strategies go. The increasing partisanship of many media outlets and the race to be first before correct makes the notion of limiting the number of filters to the message incredibly tempting. If a new Administration harnesses social media in a responsible way that is respectful of all sides — is there really a compelling reason — other than tradition — to do things the old way again?

To retreat back or move forward in a whole new way will be a tough decision. One that either of the top candidates, along with our new President, are more than qualified to make. But in the end, no matter who assumes the role, good press is ultimately driven not by spin or handling, but by how effectively and compassionately you govern. In short, by just doing the right thing. It seems a simple and easy point, but for so many administrations, so easy to get wrong.



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