Ex-Obama communications director says the communications team may not be able to rein in President Trump
But there are other things they can do to improve their outreach to the public, she says, noting credibility is a vital asset
Editor’s Note: Jen Psaki, a CNN political commentator and Spring Fellow at the Georgetown Institute of Politics, served as the White House communications director and State Department spokesperson during the Obama administration. Follow her: @jrpsaki. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.
During my eight years in the Obama administration, there was an offhand comment uttered from time to time in the hallway after something went off the rails, “It’s a communications problem.”
The reality is that is the case sometimes, but most of the time the problem is much larger.
Some of the major fumbles of the first few weeks of the Trump administration have been due to the communications team: whether it was the sloppy rollout of the executive order on immigration or the series of television interviews with senior officials who were either unprepared, out of the loop or pompous enough to think they could wing it with a network anchor.
But not all the problems are communications issues. Far from it.
It is highly unlikely that press secretary Sean Spicer and presidential counselor Kellyanne Conway loaded their boss up with Red Bull Thursday morning and advised him to become unhinged during the press conference.
I doubt they encouraged him to ask April Ryan, an African-American reporter, to set up a meeting with the Congressional Black Caucus or to say, “Nuclear holocaust would be like no other.”
As my old boss, Rahm Emanuel, used to say, “The fish rots at the head.”
Not only is the current White House team led by an undisciplined President lacking depth or intellectual curiosity, but a President who believes bullying, freezing out the mainstream media, lying to the public, and fostering a chaotic “Game of Thrones” style environment is how you make America great again.
Spicer and Conway can’t change that. But if I had a candid conversation with them, there are a few things I would suggest.
– Stop lying. If the fact that you are speaking on behalf of the United States government and that the American people rely on the information you share isn’t enough, then the reality that this isn’t Russia, we don’t have a state-run media and you will be caught in your lie should be reason enough. If you don’t have the information or the answer, just say so.
– Second, you need something to sell. The reason everyone is so spun up about who is up and who is down on the staff is because there is nothing else to talk about. Beyond toothless executive orders and one that has already been placed on indefinite hold by the courts, this administration isn’t making policy, isn’t laying out a plan for legislative action. Simply saying you are very busy and active isn’t cutting it. Push the chief of staff, the policy heads, Steve Bannon or even Trump himself on the need for an agenda.
– Force decision-making about the message strategy in the morning meeting in front of all your colleagues. Let Reince Preibus be the arbiter of differing viewpoints. That’s his job. If you need to decide whether you are standing behind a member of the Cabinet, raise it then. If you are determining how to push back on a bad storyline, discuss it then. And if news breaks after the meeting, call another one. There is nothing more powerful than forcing people to spill their views at a table face to face.
– Use your research team and fact check details before saying them publicly. If you don’t have a research team: hire one. They are the unsung heroes of every White House. At a minimum it will decrease the material “Saturday Night Live” has to work with.
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– Staff up your national security, state and defense communications teams. By not having a briefing at the State Department for the last four weeks, you are failing to communicate to dozens of key countries, partners, allies and even adversaries around the world. These reporters don’t play gotcha, they are trying to explain the positions of the United States on global events.
– Don’t replicate Donald Trump’s personality from the press room podium. He may yell at reporters and accuse people of being stupid and lying, but that doesn’t mean you need to use that behavior as a model. Develop your own style. Go back to the roots of what helped you rise in the Republican Party in the first place.
– Call on reporters who are from left-leaning organizations like the Huffington Post or Talking Points Memo, not just right-leaning. How bad could it be?
– Hold the policy team’s feet to the fire to make decisions based on what will come up at the briefing. If they want you to sell their policies, they should make some. And they should provide you with every ounce of information necessary to sell it.
– Bring in more heavy policy hitters to brief the press. And not Stephen Miller. Some of the best briefers we had are still public servants. Rely on experts who aren’t political, who won’t possibly misspeak, because they have been working on the issue for 20 years.
– Change your television strategy. Identify officials who appeal to a broader audience, who can speak to why decisions were made and what motivates your boss, people who aren’t just getting through the interview, but are storytelling.
– Get back out into the country more. Not for big rallies, but so Trump can reconnect with the people who believe he is going to change their lives for the better. At best that will bring him greater focus and humanity, at worst it will give the press something else to talk about other than staff infighting stories.
Finally, your credibility is more important than any job on your resume. There isn’t a press staffer on either side of the aisle who wouldn’t love to be the White House press secretary or a senior adviser one day. But not at any cost. Do your job like you could walk away. You may choose to one day.