From the eye of the storm: comms lessons from Obama’s deputy press secretary

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What does it take to handle being in the full glare of the media spotlight, and how do you handle a constant barrage of journalists’ queries? Propeller Group’s head of media and marketing Ben Titchmarsh considers the lessons marketers can learn from professionals sitting outside of advertising.

One comms professional who has been there, done that and has a bucket-load of insight and advice to share as a result is Eric Schultz, former White House principal deputy press secretary under Barack Obama and chief executive officer of The Shultz Group. He joined one of our virtual Comms Club events in discussion with our director of business development and partnerships Ben Titchmarsh to discuss his story.

Schultz joined the president’s team in spring 2011 aged 34 and managed the administration’s proactive messaging and news-of-the-day responses. He is one of the select few comms professionals who has spoken from Air Force One and the White House briefing room.

Before joining the White House staff, he spent nearly a decade working for US senators, including as communications director for current Democratic leader Charles Schumer. He is also a veteran of numerous state-wide and national campaigns, including as New Hampshire communications director for John Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign and deputy campaign manager for Al Franken’s 2008 Senate race.

The special relationship (with the press)

Schultz admits: “It was mostly unglamorous, working with reporters and trying to get the president’s message across to as wide an audience as possible, and handle the incoming questions from a notoriously aggressive and relentless press corps.

“I’ve lost my temper plenty of times with reporters, but every time I regret it – it’s about understanding they have an imperative and a job to do, and recognizing that the newspaper is going to come out tomorrow and it’s going to come out the next day and the day after that. The most important element I determined for my success was credibility.

“We certainly put our spin on the ball, but I don’t think reporters would ever suggest I intentionally misled them or was deceitful in any way.”

On the podium

Taking to the press briefing podium was the “honor of a lifetime,” says Schultz. “I am an evangelist for the press briefing and a fan of that podium – it’s [a] stake in the ground for democracy. Having one of the president’s top advisors go live on camera to answer the questions is an important signal to send around the world about holding ourselves accountable.”

What viewers saw or read was not just the White House press team “speaking off the cuff.” When speaking in the briefing, he was representing the entire administration or even the country. “It cannot just be the press team thinking about how they want to answer something. It’s the product of an inter-agency process, a pretty robust system.”

The president’s poker face

Of course, Schultz shares some anecdotes about working under Obama (whom he still advises as a consultant), calling him “brilliant but kind and thoughtful. Given who he is and [his] stature, [he] does not have to be so kind, but he is.”

Schultz was often summoned to satisfy the president’s penchant for card-playing – voluntering himself on many long Air Force One flights to play cards with his boss. “It’s one thing feeling the pressure briefing the press from the White House podium, it’s another to be the president’s partner in a card game.”

Schultz’s five pieces of invaluable advice

Before a broadcast opportunity, do your homework: “Have a good sense of what you’re stepping into. It’s so busy right now with things coming at us and so much happening. Pause, take a moment to figure out what [is] set up and what is the one takeaway you want to be conveyed. Be reminded, given the breathless nature of media and our work, to slow down and realize what you are doing in that moment.”

Establish a relationship with journalists: “It comes down to building relationships to the extent that when moments get hot, there’s a basic level of understanding and trust. That foundation is hard to build in a moment – you have to spend a lot of time in advance.”

When briefing someone for interview, provide time to rehearse: “Even saying it in your head is very different from reading it out loud. Allow people to practice and hear [the material] out loud – and then you as comms director can tweak and tinker with it.”

When there’s a crisis, be the adult in the room: “Things will be moving so fast and vigorously, and a lot of the information can be chaotic and unverified, but you want to be seen as credible, empathetic and transparent. As the moment starts to get swept up in the swirl, you run the risk of losing your stature in the middle of a story. Being the calm adult in the room in the midst of chaotic frenzy will serve you well.”

When there is a problem, be clear what you are doing to fix it: Schultz gave the example of the roll-out of the Healthcare.gov website, launched on the back of the president signing the Affordable Care Act. The website went down a number of times. “That was a real moment for me to realize that not only do you have to be credible and empathetic, but clear on what you are doing to fix the problem.”