The NPR “Fresh Air” podcast recently had an episode made up of a collection of interview snippets from former White House press secretaries from Marlin Fitzwater to Scott McClellan.
As a huge fan of The West Wing, I was always fascinated by the role of CJ, the fictional Press Secretary. Here was a person largely responsible for the way the entire world perceived the actions of the White House, yet was only allowed (or able) to exert minimal control over the actions that lead to those perceptions. In listening to this podcast, it was fascinating to hear how these men had struggled to deliver on their sense of duty to country by being honest with the press, while simultaneously creating marketing for the White House.
This “caught between two worlds” feeling kicked my empathy production center into overdrive. I couldn’t understand why until it dawned on me that community managers and press secretaries have quite a lot in common.
- Both roles walk a thin line between “outside” (press corps/fan community) and “inside” (White House/company).
- Both roles bring the ire of both sides because they don’t seem to pay enough attention to “us” (whichever side is “us” at a given moment).
- There is an honest desire to both stick up for the outside, while defending the inside.
- Both roles are granted perceived power far greater than their actual job description probay grants them.
- Tenacity and the ability to take a good beating are a crucial skill.
- Both roles rely on a certain passion for the topic and a certain faith in the organization.
The similarities were eery, and made me want to learn more about how press secretaries hone their skills. Here’s a few things that I’d love to learn if I had a chance to sit down with a White House (or other governmental department) press secretary:
- How do you build mental stamina when people are yelling at and distrustful of you by default?
- How do you find a balance between representing the official position and your own beliefs?
- How do you add personality to the interaction with your external audiences without seeming disingenuous?
- Can you truly become any sort of friends with your external audience?
Without question community managers could learn many positive things from the press secretaries, but it’s also clear that they are a harbinger of doom as well. At the heart of the role, the goal of the press secretary is make the administration (or department) look good. Above all else, they are a defensive tool that has, at least in the past, inherently blocked true transparency. True discussion has not been the discourse of the day. Hell, they’ve been lampooned as heartless, half-alive robots who are absolutely unable to get off their talking points. See this hilarious video from The Onion for proof.
Perhaps that’s starting to change. Perhaps the rise of the social web principles have started to take root in government as well. Ann Compton, president of the White House Correspondents Association, said that Bush administration press secretary Tony Snow was “the first press secretary who chose to use the podium as a way to argue the president’s case — not just in the president’s words, but in his own.”
I would imagine that the White House will always have to have a press secretary. But can you imagine if the press secretary was replaced with a community manager? Someone charged specifically with doing a better job of connecting, explaining, discussing the issues of the day… oh to dream.
WIth the way the Millennials are impacting and redefining culture, maybe this is more than a silly dream of a silly community guy…
UPDATE: Thanks to @transitioner for pointing out the Citizen’s Solution Council.