Interview: Wes Pedersen

Director of communications and PR, Public Affairs Council

Director of communications and PR, Public Affairs Council

Wes Pedersen, a 26-year stalwart at the Public Affairs Council (PAC), announced his retirement this year after an illness. He will step down sometime in June. Pedersen, who will now work on books, a blog, and PAC columns, has attracted numerous approbations over the years, but is most fond of Association Trends calling him the "Great Association Communicator."

Via e-mail, he discussed the Administration's communications strategy, the fallacy of thinking politics are dirtier today than yesteryear, and how PA officials can help clean up lobbying.

Q: Why did you decide to retire now?
I had a heart attack in July. The surgeon did a spectacular job, but protocol mandated that I spend a few days in rehab. The result: A raging infection that had the medics there pumping antibiotics in me for two and a half weeks.... Council president Doug Pinkham has asked me to write a column plus, and I will be doing that at home. I'll be serving clients from there, too. I may also conduct a campaign on my own, for me: Infections kill an estimated 100,000 people a year who though they were safe in hospital. Others are left like walking wounded. It's a damned disgrace and I hope to join others in shedding light on the problem.

Q: How do you envisage your new role with the PAC?
Part-time. [I will do] my monthly column plus mostly from home, but with occasional drop-in visits to the Council. This would be for a year minimum. Doug has set a figure, and the details are being worked out.

Q. How do you recall your two-year experience working on the agency side? (Pedersen was VP of Fraser/Associates in 1979-1980.)
I enjoyed the challenge of ad and PR campaigns, but I hated the idea of staying up until 4am getting ready to make a pitch to a possible client, then having to make it three short hours later at a benighted breakfast. I abhor breakfast meetings, and more and more, I am returning to my precept of government days: If you want to accomplish anything, forget the conferences with the elaborate agendas. If you're good at what you do, you know immediately what needs to be done and who is available to do it. One of the reasons I joined the Public Affairs Council 26 years ago – and took a substantial cut in pay to do so – was the opportunity to work closely with Dick Armstrong, who for all intents and purposes was the founder and steward of the Council in the days when public affairs was a term few people used and fewer still understood. Dick was exceptionally creative and an absolute delight to work with.

Q: It seems a common thread in political commentary that politics has become uglier than in the past (partisan attacks, smearing, etc.). Do you find this so? Or is it a common misconception that politics were civil in the past?
I came into the Department of State in 1950, when Senator Joseph McCarthy was smearing reputations right and left. He terrorized people. The press – except for Ed Murrow – was afraid of him, as were his fellow Senators. It's not that bad now, but what has changed is the adaptation of the smear by innuendo and twist-facts-to-the-max tactics used in recent political campaigns. When you stoop to impugn the patriotism of a Max Cleland, a triple amputee who served his country well in the Senate and in the military, you have reached the nadir in politics.

Q: What about traditional print journalism? Is it under attack or merely in the process of adapting like it did when faced with radio and television?
It is under attack because it is out of date and is not keeping up with the technology that's capable of carrying every type of message extant. Here's what I wrote in October: "Mark it down. The era of the all-knowing, all-crowing, all-powerful press is over. [It's] time for you to get serious about finding alternative ways to get your political and marketing campaigns across."

Q: Do you think campaigns need to focus more on writing their own blogs or reaching out to independent bloggers to deliver messages?
Yes. A party or candidate blog can be inspirational by suggesting information and ideas that sympathizers can spread via their own blogs. Of course, they need to reach [out] to independent bloggers as well. That's where the political campaign profit will be this year.

Q: Do you plan to ever start up a blog? Are you working on a new book?
I will indeed start up a post-Council blog, and I will be working on a new book. Several, in fact.

Q: How would you rate the Administration's handling of its reputation abroad? What, if anything, does it need to do to improve its standing?
It has been horribly erratic. It's hard to [know] how the Administration can continue to maintain its reputation for cleverness in controlling the message. Look at the mix of messengers: [former FEMA head Michael Brown] "Brownie," who didn't have enough PR sense to roll up his sleeves – literally – for photo ops in the wreckage of Katrina, even when the President was baring his biceps; Donald Rumsfeld, who has become unbearably bombastic and smug; and Condoleezza Rice, who dazzles audience after audience with charm and the right words at the right time. It may be time for the President to summon his Cabinet to Camp David and let his Secretary of State instruct them all in the niceties of basic PR.

[Pedersen, whose comments took place before Andrew Card, former White House chief of staff, left the Administration, stressed that the following comment was his own and did not reflect the opinion of the Council:] At the heart of the White House's administrative and cosmetic problems these days is the fact that too many of the President's high-brass cohorts have worn out whatever welcomes they may have at the beginning of his presidency. They're old faces with tired messages whose brands no longer have marketable value. From the standpoint of the President's image, nothing would benefit him more than a strategic infusion of new blood into the highest ranks of government.

Q: Regarding government propaganda, is it more important to focus on the fact that it is dishonest or that it rarely works (when news of the actual planting leaks out)?
The two are inseparable notions.

Q: You worked directly with the White House when you were researching some of your books. Do you find it unsurprising that this Administration is criticized for keeping the press at a distance? Is that par for the course?
It's always been that way. Keep your enemies at bay and reward your friends with a bit of help now and then. [But] this White House is foolish in the way it has treated some reporters. The president's deliberate refusal to call on Helen Thomas at press conferences over a three-year period may not have [been] out of malice. Of course, it could very well be that – when the President finally gave her the go-ahead a week or so ago, she simply asked too many ultra-pointed questions. Maureen Dowd is another matter. The White House has withheld her press credentials and in this case there is no doubt: Maureen goes for the jugular. What President would relish the thought of doing battle with her?

Q: Has working in public affairs changed since the Cold War ended?

Q: Can you name three of the most pressing opportunities or challenges for public affairs professionals?
Since public affairs professionals are so often lobbyists highly esteemed by their colleagues and the political figures whom they cultivate, the challenge is to lead the way in demonstrating how clean lobbying can be. That will be an almost impossible chore, given the damaging publicity stemming from the crude violations of the norm by the duplicitous few, but the attempt must be made. That is a challenge that is worthy of two points. The third challenge, of course, is make sure that any participation in politics in this election year, or in any subsequent year, is keep clean and free of taint.

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