There’s more structure in corporate communications versus the political world, but getting your message across is harder when the media is not hanging on each word uttered by your boss, say comms pros who have made the move from political careers to the private sector.
Among the latest to make that transition is former White House Communications Director Hope Hicks, who was named EVP and chief communications officer of Fox, the company to be formed from leftovers from Walt Disney Co.’s purchase of 21st Century Fox.
Almost anything that former Trump administration top-level staffers do is news, but the journey from politics to the private sector is nothing new. PRWeek talked to four former political communicators who made the jump to find out what it’s like communicating for a candidate or officeholder versus a CEO.
One pleasant surprise? You can still do meaningful work while pursuing a profit.
"My time in politics was fueled by a passion I have to have a positive impact on people," says Katie Fallon, EVP and global head of corporate affairs at Hilton. Fallon worked in the Obama administration first as deputy communications director and deputy assistant to the president and then director of legislative affairs and senior adviser to the president. Prior, she was a congressional aide for five years. "I had a false impression you couldn’t drive that positive change from vantage point of a corporate headquarters, but in my first meeting with Hilton’s CEO, I realized that was a naive way to view the world."
Former White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest echoes that sentiment.
"My experience at the White House fed a real intellectual curiosity that I had about policy, politics, and global events," he says. "The airline industry feeds the same intellectual curiosity."
Earnest was the last press secretary for President Barack Obama before joining United Airlines in May. He says he found the airline industry deals with almost as many issues as the White House.
"The kinds of decisions we have to make here at the airline are also influenced by global events and vice versa," he says. "The kind of diplomatic relations that the United States has around the world impacts our ability to do business with other countries. So the bigger social questions that we grappled with very publically in the White House are also questions we grapple with at United. Although it’s to a lesser degree here, we still have ability to influence them."
However, a big difference is media attention. Former government communicators say that in government or on the campaign trail, the media is constantly looking for news, and that can make it easier to get your message across.
"On campaigns...it’s very easy to convey a message and get whatever it is you’re working on sort of out there," says Brunswick Group senior counselor Lanhee Chen, who advised four presidential campaigns, including Sen. Marco Rubio’s (R-FL) 2016 presidential campaign and the Romney-Ryan Republican campaign in 2012.
It’s similar in the White House, Earnest and Fallon say, with reporters hyper-focused on the president’s every word.
Susan Lagana worked at the Transportation Department for more than four years, most recently as director of public affairs. She is now MD at Burson Cohn & Wolfe in Washington, DC, handling public affairs and crisis communications.
Lagana agrees that private-sector PR pros must generally work harder for the media attention that comes naturally to government comms teams, but having government experience is good preparation for the challenge.
"[In government], you do have a core press team that covers what you do and is always going to be poised to be interested in what you’re doing, and it is more of a challenge in private sector," she says. "But I think the advantage a former government comms person can bring is a really highly developed sense of what will or will not be interesting to reporters -- and I think reporters appreciate that perspective."
However, Lagana notes a key difference: "Private companies want their messages to get out, but they also want it to be effective, and something government people have experience doing is thinking about what angles and perspectives will be effective and interesting to reporters."
Chen agrees. "On campaigns, it is very easy to convey a message and get whatever it is your working on sort of out there," she says. "The reality is the relationships you make and the skills you developed on a campaign don’t go away, and you want to understand where a reporter is coming from and where the media is coming from."
Another big change, at least for former White House staffers, is that there is more time to plan and iron out details in the private sector.
"The other thing I’ve noticed that’s different at the White House is you may as well have a countdown clock over the front door. What it means is that there is a temptation...to see time spent planning as time not spent executing. It frequently requires a lot of discipline in the White House because of that time pressure to say, ‘Hold on a minute, let’s make sure we’ve got it right," Earnest explains. "In a corporate setting, at least after the four months I’ve been here, I’ve found there is more intrinsic benefit seen in detailed planning."
Former White House Press Secretaries Josh Earnest, Robert Gibbs, and Joe Lockhart will be among the panelists at PRWeek's PRDecoded in Chicago next Thursday.
Other communications pros who have made the jump say corporate life tends to be more well-defined.
"I think at a large, global company like Hilton, I feel there’s a lot more role definition and executives are held accountable to a very defined mission that is easily quantifiable or measurable for shareholders," Fallon says. "In the White House, it kind of feels like as senior adviser to the president, you’re in the trenches together, and it’s not as functionally defined. In the private sector, it’s easier to know what your day-to-day objectives are and how you are being held accountable for them when you are working for public company."
One positive difference is work-life balance. The private sector doesn’t always respect personal time, of course, but on a campaign or in government work, it can be downright nonexistent.
"It is definitely not a laid-back environment here," Earnest says of United. "But at least it is quite a bit more predictable than when I was in the White House, and that predictability and consistency is really a nice thing when your trying to have dinner with your family."
Fallon says the private sector has an incentive to respect personal time that just doesn’t exist in the White House.
"I do think at big companies like Hilton they have the ability to prioritize things like work-life balance," she explains. "They put great stock in that because of the very real research out there. People think better when they have enough sleep and have enough personal time and take care of themselves physically."
"In a place like the White House, it’s just not possible," Fallon adds. "It consists of very small teams and very huge amounts of pressure on the folks to be always on, and there is no real HR function looking out for you."