Same skills, different pace: Gibbs and Earnest on life after the White House

The former White House press secretaries got the PRDecoded conference in Chicago started on Thursday.

L-R: PRWeek's Steve Barrett, Josh Earnest and Robert Gibbs
L-R: PRWeek's Steve Barrett, Josh Earnest and Robert Gibbs

Are skills from the political world transferable to the boardroom? Yes, but beware the acronyms, said two former White House press secretaries at the PRDecoded conference in Chicago on Thursday morning.

A major challenge for political operatives moving to the private sector is learning the "language of a business," especially its in-house vernacular, said Robert Gibbs, the first White House press secretary under President Barack Obama.

"The skills you learn in politics, and particularly on campaigns, are very, very transferrable. You’re using data to figure out a message and an audience and what you have to do to move people from one place to another," he said. "To be particularly credible in the boardroom, you can’t just have a skill set of what you’re functionally good at; you have to speak the language of the business."

Gibbs and Earnest, the respective first and last White House press secretaries in the Obama administration, kicked off PRWeek’s PRDecoded conference in Chicago with a breakfast panel on Thursday morning on transitioning from politics to business.

The private sector is also a change in pace from the White House press briefing room, without the "countdown clock" of a president’s term ending on a set date and time and more appreciation for planning, said former top White House spokesman Josh Earnest.

"[In the White House] we only had that much time to try to get everything done. That added a palpable sense of urgency," he said. "In the corporate world...there is a greater appreciation and understanding of planning in advance."

Earnest, now SVP and chief communications officer at United Airlines, said that in his prior career, there was a swarm of dedicated beat reporters covering the West Wing. In the private sector, reporters have much broader beats including other airlines, industrial giants such as Boeing and Airbus, and even car-makers such as Tesla.

"When you want their attention, you need to have a really good way to get their attention," he said.

Gibbs, now the chief communications officer and EVP of corporate relations at McDonald’s, added that a White House spokesperson has more opportunities to correct a wrong answer than a corporate executive.

‘I thought a lot of people tweeted about the White House’
Gibbs and Earnest also discussed how life in the White House prepared them for social media outrages in the private sector, with United’s Earnest saying, "I thought a lot of people tweeted about the White House when I was there."

Before Earnest joined the company, United faced a corporate crisis in Spring 2017 over the forced removal of passenger David Dao from a flight after other customers recorded the incident and posted it on social media.

Gibbs recalled working for the Obama campaign in 2007 and 2008 during the advent of social media and advising other campaign staffers on how to squelch internet rumors about the place of the 44th president’s birth by posting a copy of his birth certificate online.

"I said, ‘Just scan it and put it on our website,’ and I thought, rather naively, ‘that’s all done,’" he said. "It never, ever stopped."

Now both running communications at publicly traded companies, Gibbs and Earnest said their teams work to first determine whether a social media event is real, and whether it can be handled by customer service before it becomes a corporate communications issue. The question is often "is it a one-to-one response or is it a broad response?"

"We recognize there is a way to intervene at a customer-service level before it becomes a PR problem," added Earnest. "That’s a large quantity of the social media traffic that is directed at us."

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