What Sean Spicer can learn from Bill Belichick

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Story highlights

  • James Lynch: To deal with the White House press corps, Sean Spicer should follow the lead of the taciturn, no-nonsense Bill Belichik
  • He says press secretary must be able to play defense and stonewall when necessary. No does that better than the Patriot's coach

James Lynch is a consultant with Ari Fleischer Communications, a public relations company serving sports and corporate clients. He previously served on John McCain's 2008 presidential campaign as a war room manager. Follow him on Twitter. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)On Friday, Sean Spicer will become the 30th White House Press Secretary. If Spicer wants to be successful, he might take a tip from his favorite football coach—especially if that coach is six-time Super Bowl champion coach—Bill Belichick. When it comes to handling the press, no one does it better than Coach Belichik.

James Lynch
There's a lot of old C-SPAN tape of White House briefings for Spicer to watch, but the "outsider" move would be for him to get lost in YouTube videos of Belichick's storied pressers.
In both sports and politics, press conferences are a necessary tool for getting information to the media. A good press conference allows the coach or press secretary to state his or her message, followed by a session in which reporters ask tough questions.
In an NFL Films short video covering the very subject of Belichick's pressers, Tom Curran, Comcast SportsNet New England's "Patriots Insider", said this of the coach, "He is at his essence, a teacher. He wants to transmit what he knows ... to the people who are covering it so that they do a better job breaking down the game."
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That's exactly the role of a White House Press Secretary. He or she should be able to translate the president's policies and agenda into a disciplined message that reporters and the public understand. But in reality, he or she must be able to play defense and stonewall when necessary. And nobody does that better than Belichick.
Belichick has the ability to sniff out and reject questions he doesn't like. In a presser before a matchup with the Seattle Seahawks this season, the first two questioners inquired about a letter that Belichick had written to his friend, President-elect Trump.
"Were you happy or annoyed that Donald Trump read the letter?"
His menacing reply was one word: "Seattle."
He was hit with a follow-up.
"Your team has always been good at keeping outside distractions on the outside. Given the nature of this presidential race—
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Belichick interrupted: "Seattle".
"—did you find—"
"Seattle"
"—did you find it helpful—"
"Seattle"
"—to talk to players about this? Did any players talk to you about this?"
"Seattle."
"Are there any concerns about any locker room rancor as a result of this?"
Fourteen uncomfortable, head-down, chin-to-your-chest, crawl-in-a-corner-and-die seconds of silence followed.
The next reporter asked a football question. Smart move.
Coach Belichick knew, as would any quality PR person, that if he uttered the name "Trump," he would be off-message and reporters would launch a thousand tweets in a non-football direction. In a similar episode in 2014, Belichick deployed the same defense after his team lost to Kansas City. "We're on to Cincinnati," Belichick murmured several times through the presser's opening questions.
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I'd love to see Sean Spicer take Belichick's routine into the White House Briefing Room.
Imagine a reporter asking Press Secretary Spicer about President Trump's latest Saturday Night Live-hating tweet. "Does the Administration want to comment about Alec Bald—"
"Build the Wall."
"--Alec Baldwin's portrayal—"
"The Wall."
"—of the President's—
"The Wall."
"—hand size?"
Fourteen seconds of menacing silence.
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Belichick's radio interviews are instructive too. This week, he sidestepped when responding to a Pittsburgh Steelers' player's Facebook live broadcast in which Coach Mike Tomlin calls the Patriots "a—holes." Belichick simply stated, "I'm not on SnapFace and all of that ... I'm not really worried about what they put on InstantChat, or whatever it is." Distraction averted.
And if Spicer really wants to truly channel his "inner Bill Belichick," he should deliver the first press conference in that trademark Belichick hoodie with cut-off sleeves. Remember when President Obama ditched his suit jacket in the Oval Office? The next day, the New York Times wrote, "The capital flew into a bit of a tizzy when, on his first full day in the White House, President Obama was photographed in the Oval Office without his suit jacket."
Bring on the hoodie. A shake-up may be exactly what the White House Briefing Room needs.
Just don't ask Coach Belichick about this idea at his next press conference. You're likely to get a one word response. "Football." And that's a good thing—he's on message.