Public Lives, Public Affairs. At a recent press conference, on May
31, the first question from the White House press corps to White House
press secretary Ari Fleischer was not about President Bush's
environmental policies, or tax plans, or even the defection of Senator
James Jeffords from the Republican party. It was about underage drinking
charges against the president's 19-year-old twin daughters. The next ten
questions were on the same subject.
Was this fair? In an interview with PRWeek, Ari Fleischer said he
believes the press has a right to ask any question it wishes. But he
believes it is the job of the PR practitioner to push right back. "I
cannot object to the press asking about items that are newsworthy
because the law is involved," says Fleischer. "I can and will object to
the press writing about private matters within a family."
Fleischer's objection is a difficult one for the press to stomach.
Modern-day fascination with the personal peccadilloes of politicians
began in 1987 when The Miami Herald unearthed Gary Hart's adulterous
affair with a young model during his 1988 presidential bid. The press
coverage reached its zenith - or nadir - with Clinton. But today, the
private lives of public officials have become fair game, as George W.,
his brother Jeb, New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani, Bob Kerrey and the
Rev. Jesse Jackson will attest.
This means that the wit and ken of the spokesperson must be put to as
much use answering questions about love and marriage as it is about
Congressional ballot hearings or the passage of a bill into law.
Who is fair game? Even business leaders can potentially expect scrutiny,
if they are a big enough name, and if their behavior is sufficiently
But the most likely public figures are, of course, politicians, and the
press secretaries and PR consultants that advise them can be faced with
an incredible barrage of personal questions against their client or
The most important thing to remember, say experts, is to separate client
service and emotional involvement and not to feel the need to answer
every question yourself.
No to no comment
One of the most widely espoused rules of PR is never to say "no
comment." But the recent experience of Jeb Bush brings that saw into
question. Lou Colasuonno, partner at Westhill Media Strategies, says the
Florida governor blundered when he publicly denied a long-running rumor
of an adulterous affair, first with Secretary of State Katherine Harris,
then with Cynthia Henderson, former Playboy bunny and current Florida
Secretary of the Department of Management Services. The rumor first came
to light in The Guardian (of London). Denials of the rumor were reported
in two state newspapers, the St. Petersburg Times and The Orlando
Sentinel. But when Jeb Bush publicly denied the allegations at a
(public) bill signing, the story went national.
"The last thing you want to do is create a negative story where one
might not exist," says Colasuonno. "You shouldn't say 'no comment' or
delay commenting, unless a comment would create, legitimize, or prolong
a crisis on which the source has no substantive evidence."
Beating the press to the punch
When the journalist clearly has a story, however, speed is of the
essence. "The key is getting in front of the news," says Colasuonno. His
advice is classically illustrated by his work with the Rev. Jesse
Jackson. Three days before the story broke that Jackson had fathered an
illegitimate child, Colasuonno began calling contacts at the New York
Post and New York Daily News to get reporters a statement from Jackson
before they filed their stories.
"His response became the lead to the first day story, which gained us a
voice and set the tenor for the story. Anyone who will write a story
about this will go to the database and see the first day story is about
the Rev. Jackson apologizing for what he had done, making it clear he
had supported the child emotionally and financially, had apologized and
spoke to his family and that the people close to him knew about this.
That, rather than a story about "Jesse's Love Child," was the story"
How do you get the heads-up if these stories are brewing? Colasuonno
says his relationships with members of the media allow him to figure out
where a story will break and get information to the right reporters. But
he admits "You don't always get a call. (Journalists) might call at
5:30am and then the story runs the next morning."
Sometimes knowing the story is coming isn't tricky. When Bob Kerrey went
to Westhill, a reporter had been working for more than two years on the
story of Kerrey's possible war crimes as a Navy SEAL in Vietnam.
Michael Powell, a partner at Westhill, says pre-empting a story to run
in the Sunday New York Times Magazine was job one. Job two through seven
was to get messages and statements together for not only Kerrey, but
also six of the seven men who were with him the night of possible
civilian murders. (A seventh SEAL team member disputed the memories of
the other men.)
The crisis team used a password-protected extranet to post every
article, memo, talking point and speech. With so many people involved in
the story, the extranet also allowed chat threads, secure group e-mail
and immediate responses to crisis suggestions.
But how do you ask a client whether or not they did the deed? Powell
says a lawyerly approach can be best. "Lawyers seldom ask 'Did you do
it?'" he says. "They say: 'You've been charged with such and such, this
is the evidence they have, this is what people are saying, how do you
square this, how do you respond to this?'"
Juleanna Glover Weiss is no stranger to personal intrusions into the
lives of her bosses. As communications director for Mayor Giuliani
during his Senate campaign race, silence was the initial counsel when
rumors of an adulterous affair first emerged.
After he aborted his campaign against a backdrop of prostate cancer and
increasing media scrutiny, Giuliani's declarations resembled public
While Glover Weiss will not comment on his vociferous declarations, one
gets the feeling that the press team has lost control amid the public
feuding over his divorce.
Glover Weiss is happier to recount her experience as Dick Cheney's press
secretary, even though his dicky heart has made for a lot of
"We provide as much information as possible, but the only people that
can talk are the physicians," says Glover Weiss. "It's much easier when
you have a secondary information source you can point to that can speak
with authority," she continues. "With a health issue, we limit our
Even if the questions are of a more personal vein, however, the silent
dignity of former White House press secretary Mike McCurry can also
stand you in good stead. "Don't feel you have to answer every question,"
says one former press secretary. Sometimes, it's more than your job is