Q&A with former Bush press secretary Dana Perino

Dana Perino spoke with PRWeek about her next career move, which led to Burson-Marsteller, and how the White House shaped her views on communications.

The issues that excite Dana Perino are what you would expect from a former White House press secretary – energy, healthcare, trade, and defense.

When Perino, former press secretary for President George W. Bush, talks about her new position as chief issues counselor for Burson-Marsteller, these are the issues that she says she is excited about.

On April 20, she starts work with the firm in Washington, reporting to Josh Gottheimer, EVP and global chair of corporate and public affairs for Burson.

It's been nearly a decade since Perino last worked for an agency. She left the San Diego office of Porter Novelli in 2001 for a position with the US Department of Justice. The move to Washington was an important one, driven by her desire to work with the Bush Administration after the terrorist attacks of September 11.

She joined the White House staff in 2005 for a position as the director of communications for the Council on Environmental Quality and then took over the role of press secretary when Tony Snow resigned in 2007.

Dana Perino spoke with PRWeek about her next career move, which led to Burson, and how the White House shaped her views on communications.

PRWeek: After so many years in the government sector, what made you decide to go back to working in a firm?

Dana Perino: That's a good question, because I didn't think I necessarily would. I didn't really know what I was going to do. I had started giving it a lot of thought last summer, '08, because you know the end is coming. You don't have a choice. You know your job will end on January 20 at noon. But, then when the economy starting taking the nosedive and those firms needed rescuing, I basically needed to put all of those thoughts aside and focus instead on doing the best job I could for the President… I had talked to Burson in November of '08 [through Karen Hughes, vice chair]. I was immediately struck by how Josh [Gottheimer] and I got along and it was so fun, even to talk with them. There was a lot of good energy. I really gave some thought to starting my own thing. I talked with some other firms, I talked with smaller firms, I talked to private firms, I talked to other publicly-traded firms. I kept coming back to my gut instinct which was that I would fit in at Burson and they're so excited to have me, and it just felt right for me. I'm really on Cloud 9 on it. I had the most amazing PR job in the world, and the toughest one, and now the pleasure is Robert Gibbs to deal with… I'm really enjoying my post-White House life, and I think that Burson, to me, is the gold standard for PR. In the past many years that I've been doing PR, whether it be in the government or in the private sector, even if it was just for those three years, if people really have a problem, I think that Burson is always one of their top picks to get help.

PRWeek: Looking back at when the firm announced Karen's hire, there was a lot of talk about the firm really trying to create a reputation as being bipartisan. Did that play into your decision, going to a firm that has a wide spectrum of political backgrounds?

Perino: It was certainly not top of my list of reasons why, but what I liked about them was that they were willing to go after talent, no matter what their background was… The bipartisan nature of the firm, while it's attractive, was secondary to the fact that I felt that this is where the top talent goes.

PRWeek: What do you think will be the overall biggest changes, moving from something like a White House assignment to a PR firm?

Perino: Nothing will ever compare to working in the White House. I got up at 4:15 every day for four years, and I got home at 8:30 and studied from 8:30 to 9:30. Then I went to sleep and did it all over again. That just won't be the case here. One of the things that I've really enjoyed is feeling that I have a clear enough head to really dig in on issues and understand them better and really focus. I've also enjoyed, in some ways, speaking for myself. After so many years of being a spokesperson for something else, sometimes I'll be asked what my personal opinion is… It's been refreshing, in some ways.

PRWeek: How has your time working at the White House and in government changed the way you view public affairs?

Perino: I think that core principles of good communications don't change. What has changed a lot, though, is the media and technology… There are many more tools available to everybody now, both in the private sector and in the public sector. In some ways, it can be daunting and in some ways, it can be very, very exciting… One way that it is difficult is that journalists are being asked to do more with less, as are people in the private sector, but when it comes to journalism, some people are asked to sacrifice accuracy for speed to get fresh content out. We all have to be better stewards of information and the quality of it.

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