McClellan book row puts spotlight on spokespeople

Sparked by the debate over McClellan's book, discussion grows about the role of spokesperson

The just-published memoir of former press secretary Scott McClellan has raised questions regarding the role of the spokesperson, as many argue over the seeming about-face of the self-described former agent of propaganda for the White House.

Former Pentagon public affairs official Don Meyer argues that press secretaries need to do their utmost to ferret out the truth - if only because PR pros retain a kind of mantra about "getting bad news out as fast as possible," because bad news will always come out eventually.

"You have to be a representative of the organization. But the message has to intersect with what you know is right; otherwise, you can do something that damages the organization in ways you can't foresee," Meyer says.

The press secretary can't do much more than pass along what they know and defend what they've said, notes Qorvis Communications MD Stan Collender. He questions whether "this event will have any bearing on the credibility of the office given that it didn't have all that much credibility to begin with."

Neil Dhillon, MD of Ruder Finn's DC office, also suggests that spokespeople are only as good as the information they receive.

"In Scott McClellan's case, he had been relaying information given to him by others, so his superiors, including the president, bear the foremost responsibility," Dhillon adds. "The press secretary is merely a messenger and a tap dancer."

He also mused whether future White House personnel directors might decide to require press secretaries to sign some sort of "non-book rule" before being hired - no book deals for five years after they leave the White House, for instance, though Dhillon admits that would be hard to enforce.

In a masters' class on strategic PR at George Washington University, discussion about McClellan's book, What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington's Culture of Deception, sometimes fell along generational lines, according to Larry Parnell, academic director of the program. Older students generally look upon spokespeople as almost always obligated to remain discreet about their true feelings, while younger pros assume the right to express what they feel, even if it's after the fact.

He adds, "People have different opinions, but many of the students, [regardless of age], seem to take the position that if he really felt this way he should have questioned things when they came up, not [just] written a book about it afterward."

McClellan has said during his publicity tour that it simply took him time - and distance from Washington - to fully realize what lay in his conscience. Former colleagues of McClellan, such as former deputy press secretary Trent Duffy, though, say McClellan always appeared to them to be overjoyed by his job.

"This notion that he began a period of disillusionment 10 months prior to his departure doesn't match anything he told me publicly or privately," Duffy says.

"What this book does most of all is put the press secretary position under the microscope," says Lustig Communications president Brian Lustig. He notes that former Bush communications staffers, such as Duffy and Ari Fleischer, appear the staunchest critics in their opprobrium of McClellan.

Hoping to bolster public confidence in press secretaries, the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) recently called on the presidential candidates to agree to a new code of communications ethics, to ensure that government spokespeople help to further - rather than to cover up - the truth.

"Public relations professionals, including presidential spokespeople, armed with a Code of Ethics, must be part of the information-generating and policy-making team. That is, they should have a seat at the table with senior officials or management to ensure open and transparent communications and to serve the public interest," PRSA CEO Jeff Julin said in the organization's statement that called for government reform.

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