10 Lessons from White House Press Secs Fleischer and Gibbs: Witnesses to History, Human Piñatas

Being White House press secretary is arguably one of the toughest jobs in Washington. While television cameras inside White House press briefings have offered the American public selected snapshots of the job, former press secretaries Robert Gibbs and Ari Fleischer (candidly!) filled in many other details at a recent 92Y event in New York.

Help Wanted Ad: Based on their comments and our takeaways, here’s a brief job description:

“Highly experienced communications exec to serve as spokesperson in political capacity. Able to quickly distill and convey complex material to intensely curious, skeptical audiences. Physically fit since it’s a grinding, grueling exercise. Involves sitting through many meetings, extensive note-taking and speaking from podium. Can withstand being woken up three times during the night. Shows fierce loyalty to boss, but is willing to break bad news. Thick skin so you don’t take it personally, extremely diplomatic, and keen sense of humor. Skilled at assigning press seating charts.”

Ten Lessons Learned, Often the Hard Way:
While Fleischer and Gibbs each met with their predecessors before starting, they still learned a lot on the job, especially from unscripted moments. Crises proved to be pivotal, including the anthrax attack (“We thought it was a wave 2 attack on the U.S.”, said Fleischer) and the Gulf Coast oil spill (“The hardest 3 months of my professional life”, said Gibbs.)

Below is a paraphrased list of ten things they learned, some of which may also apply to corporate spokesperson roles.

1. Be in the room and attend meetings so you hear discussions in person. That way you’ll know firsthand how and why decisions were made. You can’t get by with a 5 minute rundown afterwards.(Gibbs)
2. By participating in meetings you also see what didn’t happen so you can shoot down rumors that may arise. (Fleischer)
3. Take notes from all the debates so you can understand and speak about issues you otherwise wouldn’t be able to grasp. (Gibbs)
4. Thoroughly prepare for press conference questions. There are so many curveballs that can be thrown that you can’t predict them all. (Fleischer)
5. Beware the slow news day, because once you get past the obvious press queries, then come the unanticipated questions. (Gibbs)
6. Sometimes governing doesn’t match up to the briefing cycle. You can’t speed up the news cycle, just let it run its course, as reporters, commentators and late night comics all chew through the news. (Gibbs)
7. The staff needs to adequately prep the President, and never let him say “I don’t know”. (Fleischer) Remember the question to President Bush about mistakes he’s made that he struggled to answer? Fleischer would rather forget.
8. Flood the zone with specific technical information about a topic. (Gibbs) That’s what he did during the oil spill and that’s what he recommends now to address Obamacare website IT issues.
9, The press secretary can’t claim to be an expert on every topic. A video showed Gibbs repeatedly saying just that, though he did become well-versed on the science of oil spills.
10. Don’t go out in public and been seen having fun during crises. Don’t take the job too personally, though that’s easier said than done after a while. (Gibbs)

The West Wing Comparison:
Serving as press secretary in real life was different than the job as portrayed in the TV series The West Wing. As Fleischer observed “the real West Wing is hushed, it’s the quietest place you could imagine. When someone makes a big decision, there’s no music playing in the background.”

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