What we can learn from the work of C.J. Cregg, Karine Jean-Pierre and other press secretaries

By Richard Lee

One of my favorite segments of The West Wing is when Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman decides he is capable of conducting the daily press briefing with the White House press corps and steps in for White House Press Secretary C.J. Cregg, who is recovering from root canal surgery.

In a matter of minutes, it becomes clear that the job of conducting a press briefing should be left to professionals such as Cregg. In his brief time at the podium, Lyman insults a reporter, dodges questions and tells the press corps that the president has a secret plan to fight inflation — even though there is no such plan, secret or otherwise.

Having worked in several government communication positions, I know the challenges a press secretary faces.

You need to be honest and transparent with reporters. Otherwise, you will lose credibility. On the other hand, you need to remember that you do not work for the reporters. Your boss is the president, the governor, the mayor, whoever. So you need to be very careful about what you say (and do not say). Even more challenging, you need to know how your boss would answer each question because you are answering those questions for him or her.

At the moment, journalists who cover the president are voicing frustration with White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre.

Reporters feel her answers rely too heavily on prepared talking points. As CNN explained, frustrations intensified because she told reporters that the search for classified documents in President Joe Biden’s homes had concluded, but she did not reveal that additional materials had been found.

Jean-Pierre is in a precarious position. If she knew about the additional documents and did not mention them, she is not being fully transparent and reporters are going to lose confidence in what she tells them. Conversely, if she did not know about the new documents, it suggests that she is being kept out of the loop by the president and the administration, which also would damage her confidence level with reporters.

A press secretary must be close to his or her boss in order to do the job effectively. Jody Powell, who served as President Jimmy Carter’s press secretary was one of the best. Carter once said, “Jody probably knows me better than anyone except my wife.” A good press secretary rarely has to say “I’ll check and get back to you.” They don’t need talking points or briefing binders to answer reporters’ questions.

Press secretaries play a critical role in our democracy. They convey news and information to the media, who then share it with the citizenry. The job is unheralded, and as an emotionally bruised and battered Josh Lyman quickly discovered, it is not nearly as easy as it looks.

Richard Lee, executive director of the Jandoli Institute, is a professor in the Jandoli School of Communication at St. Bonaventure University. He covered politics and government as a reporter and later served as Deputy Director of Communication for two New Jersey governors.

Categories: Jandoli Institute, Media, Politics

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