On September 10, Doug Hattaway took over as Tom Daschle's press
secretary. Twenty-four hours later, he had an unimaginable PR crisis
staring him in the face. He shares his first-hand recollections with
Back in August, when Doug Hattaway was getting ready to take over as
press secretary for Senate majority leader Tom Daschle, the former Al
Gore spokesman told PRWeek how excited he was about the coming
His prediction: "This fall should be a wild ride."
He started the job on September 10. The ride was pretty wild.
Of course, he was expecting healthcare and Social Security battles, not
military ones. He was looking forward to funding prescription drugs for
seniors, not getting his own Cipro prescriptions filled. He wanted to
pick fights with Republicans, not stage sing-a-longs with them.
But sing-a-longs, evacuations, Cipro, and war were what he got. He's
left The Hill now, his 90-day time limit as a consultant having expired,
and Democratic strategist Anita Dunn is filling in until Daschle's usual
spokeswoman, Ranit Schmelzer, returns from maternity leave.
But Hattaway, back in Boston relaunching Hattaway Communications, has
finally found some time to sit down and tell the story of his three
months on Capitol Hill. It is, by any estimation, a long story.
The difference a day can make
He remembers the morning of September 11, and attending the daily 9am
senior staff meeting "where we sit down and talk about the issues we're
facing, and get our message together on whatever questions we anticipate
from the press," when news broke of the first plane hitting the World
"We all sort of assumed it was an errant, small plane," he
By the time the second plane hit, however, he realized how wrong he was,
and his view of the suddenly smoldering Pentagon from Chief of Staff
Peter Rouse's office, where the meeting was being held, confirmed that
the country was under attack.
"One of my first questions after we realized it was a terrorist act was,
'What does the Senate majority leader do when the nation is under
attack?' It was our job to figure that out."
With no precedent to draw from, Hattaway took it upon himself to act as
a spokesman and media coordinator for the entire Senate. Quite a feat
given that every member - including his new boss - had been scattered in
a panicked evacuation. Ditto the press.
"All cell phones were jammed, so we had to set up a crisis
communications center right away," he says. Once they made it out of the
Capitol, he led the staff across the street to media consultancy Squier
Knapp Dunn, where Anita Dunn is a principal. After setting up, the first
order of business was finding and establishing communication with the
"They didn't know where I was, and I didn't know where they were," he
says. "I had the team with me start calling around to wire services,
networks and dailies to let them know where we were at, and then
stationed someone to answer press calls.
"The first press question I got that day made my heart skip a beat. She
said, 'Do you know where the president is?'"
Hattaway's answer? "No. Do you?"
"That exemplified the chaos of the first few hours."
The rest of that day is a blur of press calls, pizza delivery, CNN, and
speedy decisions. "Our message (to the press) was, 'Everyone's safe and
we're in contact.' We thought it was important to convey that the
leadership of the country was not in chaos or off in hiding."
To that end, a press conference on the steps of the Capitol was arranged
for that evening involving both parties from both houses, a unique
challenge in itself. "We drafted a joint statement by the congressional
leadership," recalls Hattaway. "That was the first joint document we'd
produced in what would become a string of bipartisanship. I drafted it,
and we sent it around to (Senate minority leader Trent) Lott, Daschle,
(Speaker of the House Dennis) Hastert and (House minority leader
Richard) Gephardt, who at this point were all at the undisclosed
It was at the press conference that the members of Congress embarked on
a spontaneous, endearingly off-key version of God Bless America. "It
made for a good moment," he remembers; a moment that networks would run
to close newscasts that evening.
Bipartisan cooperation became strangely customary over the next few
weeks, "which wasn't easy at first because no one had ever done it
before," he says. "I'm calling Lott's press secretary to strategize
about press events. We're drafting statements that Republicans will sign
off on. And we all agreed to discuss issues with each other before going
to the press about things."
That intimacy resulted in its own snafus. Once Daschle's office became
the first target of bioterrorism on the Hill, Hattaway was careful to
notify the public health authorities in such a way that the story
wouldn't leak to the press. "We tried to ensure that Daschle had a
chance to speak to the staff, and that they had a chance to call their
families," he says.
But that chance was ruined when Daschle decided to call the White House
personally and inform President Bush. "He spoke to the President right
before he went out to the Rose Garden for a photo op," Hattaway recalls,
"and then Bush went out and broke the anthrax story." Caught completely
by surprise, Hattaway and his staff had to pick up the pace on the
Now, however, he laughs the story off. "It wasn't a big problem," he
says. "We didn't feel like we had to own the anthrax story."
Indeed, Hattaway was only too happy to hand responsibility for the story
to the police and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). "I made it
clear up front that politicians and staff were not the best messengers
in a public health crisis. We needed (the authorities) to be up
A large reason for that was the insidious nature of the crisis. No one
knew much about anthrax or how it would spread, and even those reporting
on the story were part of it. "I had reporters asking me, 'Should I get
tested?,'" says Hattaway. "We were at a press conference and a
photographer asked one of the doctors: 'I don't do well on antibiotics.
What if I don't take (Cipro)?' The doctor said, 'If you've been exposed,
you will die.' In a press conference!
"I was getting more information than anyone," he confesses. "It took me
days to calm down. When you're worried about your own health when
dealing with a crisis like this - it was the most stressful situation I
ever faced." That's saying a lot from a guy who had just lived through
the 2000 Florida re-count and September 11.
It's then that Hattaway is reminded of his words from August, and his
distinctive laugh comes back. "Oh man," he sighs. "I'll never say that