Joe Lockhart has worked for a number of corporations and agencies alike, and was the veteran of several political campaigns when he got the call to become President Clinton's press secretary.
Now a partner at Glover Park Group, Lockhart answers PRWeek readers' questions about the current administration, crisis management, a typical day in the White House, and more.
Q. What issues do you deal more with or find more challenging as opposed to the government work you were doing before? -AW
A. I think working at the White House, issues will get attention just because the President is paying attention. When you work for corporations, interest groups, or nonprofits, often the most difficult task is convincing news organizations that the issue is relevant.
Q. During your experiences you have seen a lot of crises and issues. Do you believe there is a difference between being a good "leader" and being a "crisis leader"? Why or why not? -AS, Chicago
A. All leadership is tested during a time of crisis. So you can't be an accomplished leader without being able to lead in a time of crisis. Anyone can lead during good times. It's during the tough times that you're tested.
Q. Please comment on the difference between the obligations to answer to media requirements when you are a PR pro at a public function and that of a corporation. -DD, Buenos Aires
A. When you're speaking for the government, you have an absolute obligation to keep the public informed. That doesn't mean you have to answer every question or respond exactly when the press corps decides. But there is an obligation to keep the public informed. There's no law that says that, but it is certainly central to the function. As opposed to corporations, there are laws about what the public should know and when, and there should be those laws. You are responsible to your shareholders as opposed to the public at large. In some ways there's more latitude in deciding when and how to answer questions, but there are certainly stricter legal guidelines on how you disseminate information.
Q. What is the best way to train for crisis-management work? It's not something you want to gain through experience, is it? -MR
A. It's to grow up in a big, Irish Catholic family, where there's a crisis every other day. That's a serious answer.
Q. Other than yourself, who in your opinion was the most effective press secretary from JFK's administration forward, and why? -AW, Chattanooga
A. My predecessor Mike McCurry did an incredible job under extraordinary circumstances. From being able to handle the most delicate, diplomatic situation to the most indelicate of all situations, I think he set the standard for the job. There's certainly a wide variety of characters who had the job before. The only other one I would single out is Marlin Fitzwater, who wins incredible points just on stamina for the ability to serve two Presidents over a six-year period. Unless you've had the job, you just don't understand what an achievement that is.
Q. I aspire to become press secretary to the President someday. How did you get there? -LG, Burlingame, CA
A. Bad planning, a series of job mistakes, and eventually winding up temporarily in the right place at the right time. I had worked in both the media and for a series of unsuccessful political candidates, which somehow put me in a position to show up at the White House, looking for work.
Q. Describe a typical day in the White House. -LG, Burlingame, CA
A. By 9am you've just finished your sixth meeting. You meet the press at 9:15 or 9:30, get a couple hours to prepare for the briefing, and then when the briefing's over, you start your real work of the day. Which is keeping in touch with what's going on in the government, helping to plan the communications strategy, help the President respond to hundreds of different inquiries from reporters, and sometime in the middle of the night, the phone eventually stops ringing. You go to sleep, and wake up very early and start the whole thing over again the next day.
Q. Is there any advice you can give PR professionals who have previous corporate/agency experience and are now acting as a press secretary/spokesperson for a government entity? -TP
A. I'm not sure it has much to do with where you've worked before, but the best advice on being a press secretary in the government is to keep things simple, and stick with the facts you know. There's a great tendency to try to satisfy the media's search for information and fill in the blanks before the information is available. That gets you into all kinds of trouble. The best press secretaries are the ones who can stand up and say, "This is what I know; this is what I don't know. And if you think that I'm withholding from you, you're wrong. And if you think that I just don't know and am not in the loop, well, that's your problem."
Q. How do you think media relations and corporate communications will be changed by the rise of weblogs? -Constantin Basturea
A. It's just one more step in the instantaneous, interactive back-and-forth between the media and the subjects they try to cover. This has been coming for 25 years, and it used to be an event would happen, it would finish, people would think about it, then sit down and write about it. Now everybody has an equal say, and everything's written about in real time. There's a certain work-in-progress sense to the coverage.
Q. What is the biggest mistake you've made career-wise, and how did you overcome it to get to where you are today? -LT A. Might be this interview. Just kidding. I don't have a specific example, but when I used to get on shaky ground at the White House was when I would lean toward how I wanted the story to play out as opposed to what the facts were. You get in there, and you're a supporter of the President and you want things to go well, but you have to really guard against filling in the blanks in a positive way for your boss. Facts are pesky things. I found that was probably the hardest part of the job - just taking a step back and letting things develop as opposed to trying to explain them before we really knew how something was going to play out.
Q. Has there been any discussion on changing the title of "press secretary" to one using a term other than "press," which many members of the media do not like used in reference to them? -LT
A. A good press secretary will probably hold onto it if they know it annoys the media. Probably the most difficult mess I got into at the White House was over who sat where in the briefing, and who had what office space. My guess is that these things are better left alone, and are taken up at the press secretary's own peril.
Q. Are you going to vote for Kerry or Dean? -RH, New York
A. I live in DC, which means that we're disenfranchised, so I didn't get the chance to vote for any...let's put it this way: The guy I think I would've voted for wasn't on the ballot. That narrows it down to about five, and I think I'm comfortable with that.
Q. Chicken or egg? To what extent do you craft the message points based on the administration's decisions, or are the administration's decisions made based on what message points need to be conveyed? -TD, New Jersey
A. You're right in that it's chicken and egg, but I'm not sure it's quite in that sense. The administration decides every day what it is they want to communicate to the public. But they certainly understand that on some days the press corps is in a different place, and you have to be flexible in order to make sure that when you're talking the public is listening, and the press is serving as your microphone. There's certainly days when you want to talk about Medicare reform, but by 9am you know that if you want to communicate anything about what they're doing, you've got to go to plan B.
Q. Some press secretaries, like Ari Fleischer, become mini-celebrities, while others, like Scott McClellan, hardly register in the public consciousness. Is this just a difference of time and circumstance, or is it ever a conscious choice by the White House? -DQ, Washington
A. I don't think it's a conscious choice by the White House. It's an inevitable circumstance of cable TV and the internet and all the ways that a press secretary is seen here at home and around the world.
Q. In the last 5 years you've gone from Pennsylvania Avenue to K Street. How has your view of the public affairs game changed in that time? -PC
A. I think that the business world has changed, and the world of public affairs and PR has had to change rapidly to stay up. I think there's been a real professionalization of this business. You need technological and issue information in order to be successful. It's not just the relationship game that we had when I started doing this 20 years ago. I think all of that is good for the profession, the fact that you need so many more skills to succeed, as opposed just to relationships.
Q. The Bush White House is said to consider the press to be just another "special interest," with no particular claim to the President's time or thoughts. How does that sit with you? -JH
A. I think it turns 230 years of democratic traditions on its head. It shows contempt for the press, but it shows contempt for the public. This whole thing about "I trust the people" from 2000 is like a lot of things with Bush: It's exactly the opposite. They don't trust the people to make up their own minds. That's why they mislead us all the time.
Q. A number of academics are upset because a respected journalism award has been given to Marlin Fitzwater. Should press secretaries be eligible for journalism awards? -HL
A. I think there's an unhealthy mixture, and a little too aggressive a revolving door between government and the media. Good press secretaries serve an invaluable function in the process of journalism. Whether a press secretary should get a journalism award is up to journalists. But I'll tell you that probably the biggest element of being a good press secretary is being a good reporter, and being able to internally dig out information from the government, check it, recheck it, and double-source it, and find a way to disseminate it to the rest of the press corps.
Q. Given your experience in the White House, any advice for PR pros who KNOW their boss is lying to them? (This is a serious question.) -PF
A. Sit him down and have a little discussion about how it never works out.