Don't ask permission, just do it

White House political veteran Jennifer Palmieri this week passed on advice that all communicators can learn from at USC's Lead On! Women in Communication Leadership Forum.

Jennifer Palmieri interviewed at USC as part of the Lead On! Communication Leadership Forum.
Jennifer Palmieri interviewed at USC as part of the Lead On! Communication Leadership Forum.

Jennifer Palmieri woke up on Wednesday November 9, 2016 after just two hours sleep feeling like her world had crashed down around her.

As director of communications for the Hillary Clinton 2016 presidential campaign, Palmieri was coming to terms with the fact that her candidate had been defeated and Donald Trump was going to be the 45th President of the United States.

Recounting the day two years later in front of a group of communications and journalism students at USC in Los Angeles, Palmieri makes no bones about the devastation this turn of events caused her.

She describes feeling like she’d been hurled into a black hole and disconnected from the rest of the world.

As a veteran of top-level political roles that also included White House communications director under President Barack Obama, deputy press secretary for President Bill Clinton, national press secretary for the 2004 John Edwards presidential campaign, and for the DNC in 2002, this led to a period of intense soul-searching.

On reflection, Palmieri believes the Hillary Clinton campaign failed because the strategy came from the starting point that it didn’t matter that the nominee was a woman – she thought she was just the best person for the job.

Palmieri believes the campaign reduced Clinton to a "female facsimile of the qualities we expect to see in every male president." It robbed her of her own humanity and qualities unique to her, qualities that wouldn’t be found in a male president, which could redefine the definition of leadership, and that only she could bring to the Oval Office.

It led to what became known on the campaign trail as the TSAHIJDL syndrome – "There’s something about her I just don’t like."

It comes down to those good old PR staples of authenticity and transparency. But, despite the lack of these elements, Clinton still managed to win the popular vote "with half of her humanity tied behind her back."

In her book, Dear Madam President, Clinton’s director of comms says the first woman to become president of the U.S. won’t have to do that.

"You will still have a harder time than you should on the campaign trail. Getting the job will be harder than doing the job," concluded Palmieri. "But you will face easier terrain than the last woman did."

Palmieri has other valuable advice for women looking to advance to the heady heights in the world of communications that she did, and she shared them this week with delegates at USC’s Lead On! Women in Communication Leadership Forum.

She describes being in the Oval Office with Obama, as one of the near 25 people the president would interact with on an average day.

Expecting a slightly "bro-ish" atmosphere, she was surprised to be included in top-level meetings immediately on assuming the communications director role. Obama made new staffers feel at ease, but he demanded they offer opinions that would help him make the difficult decisions he had to face on a daily basis.

"You are in the room. Speak up," he would say. "There is no other room. This is it. It’s the Oval Office."

When she was distracted on one occasion during a big meeting, Obama leaned over and said: "Look at Jennifer. She is sitting there looking all stressed about some dumb Politico article that’s getting ready to run and not going to matter when it does." And Palmieri realized he was right – it didn’t actually matter.

The lesson is relevant to all communicators.

PR people now have a seat at the table. As Pfizer’s Sally Susman said in our podcast interview last week: "That battle is won."

But the seat comes with responsibilities, and Palmieri notes that one of those is "saying hard things to important people." "They appreciate being told bad things, but they need encouragement at the same time," says Palmieri.

Any effective CCO dealing with a CEO will recognize this scenario, and Palmieri’s exhortation to the impressive group of female in-house and agency PR pros at Lead On! Is super-relevant to any woman in communications: "Don’t ask permission, just dive in there and do it."

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