Replacing Huckabee Sanders: Without briefings, what's the point?

Trump has changed the role of White House press secretary to the point where it's no longer necessary, say experts.

Photo credit: Getty images
Photo credit: Getty images

Sarah Huckabee Sanders has one more week before she departs the White House, leaving it without a press secretary as President Donald Trump mulls a replacement.

However, some communications experts who have worked in the West Wing or covered the Executive Branch as journalists say Trump has rendered the role -- at least as they know it -- pointless. They note that Huckabee Sanders’ resignation, followed by reports that she is indeed considering a run for governor of Arkansas, was announced 94 days since she held a daily press briefing. Sanders was named press secretary after the departure of Sean Spicer in July 2017.

"Sarah Huckabee Sanders was not doing the job of a White House press secretary," says Ron Fournier, president of Michigan-based firm Truscott Rossman and a former White House reporter during the administrations of Presidents George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. "And that has come from the top down. It wasn’t her decision to lie at the podium or her decision to stop having briefings."

Historically, White House press secretaries have served two key functions: one, to help the president set the agenda in Washington while amplifying the administration’s message to the press corps, and also to keep government accountable by fielding questions on behalf of the commander-in-chief.

"But Trump has already decided he doesn’t want to take advantage of the platform provided to the press secretary and amplify messaging," says Fournier, "and he doesn’t want to be held accountable through the platform the way I think future presidents should and will."

Instead, Trump has relied mostly on Twitter to communicate to the electorate and to tout his record. It is not uncommon for the former businessman and reality TV star to tweet more than 10 times in a 24-hour period.

"A modern-day president needs to be on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and maybe even LinkedIn to communicate directly to his constituents, but social media should be used to amplify a message and help unify the country," says Fournier. "The press secretary, meanwhile, should be amplifying those messages in the press room to take advantage of a captive audience and a huge platform."

Given that Trump has branded the media the "enemy of the people," publicly criticized individual reporters and often goes wildly off-message in interviews, experts say any press secretary under him is in a no-win situation.

"To be successful in that role, a press secretary needs credibility with dual constituencies: the media and the president," says Precision Strategies partner Stephanie Cutter, who managed Obama’s messaging strategy and issue development while he was in the Oval Office. "That's not possible for this White House."

She adds that that role could be played by a campaign spokesperson now that Trump’s re-election campaign is under way.

A changing role
Not everyone agrees that a press secretary serves little to no purpose in the Trump administration. Public affairs pros say the job has just been redesigned and reimagined by Trump, emphasizing more targeted media in middle America rather than the national outlets in the press room.

"The function of the press secretary is far more involved than just speaking from a podium or talking to national reporters," says Dan Meyers, senior director and head of advocacy for APCO’s public affairs practice. "There are still daily discussions the White House is having with media who are likely with local broadcast outlets in middle America versus network nightly news reporters or cable pundits."

He adds that by going local, the Trump administration is actually maximizing its outreach to millions of Americans by going around the national networks.

"Imagine the impact of a story with a cabinet official or the White House press secretary communicating with millions of local Americans directly in local markets versus several thousand on an afternoon cable news channel with far less reach," points out Meyers, who served as a press advance representative for the White House during George W. Bush’s tenure. "The conversations are still happening, just in a new way that works for this administration."

Peter Carson, MD of public affairs for North America for Powell Tate, suspects Trump may be considering different formats to brief and keep the press updated in addition to Twitter, especially should he be re-elected in 2020.

"As communications continues to evolve, the way in which the press is briefed will continue to evolve, as well. To state the obvious, for example, there was a time when the president of the United States briefed the media without TV cameras because TV didn’t exist," he says. "It would be smart for any president or future president to continue to think about the best ways and formats to communicate back to the press."

Nedra Pickler, MD at Glover Park Group, says Trump has been "short-sighted in losing the regular briefings. Of course they are good for democracy, but they also could be a valuable tool for the White House to set the agenda in Washington."

However, she agrees that press secretaries do plenty of work off the podium and could in this administration, too.  

"Effective press secretaries also do a lot behind the scenes: shaping the media narrative on background, ensuring the president is primed for news developments and interacting with their counterparts on foreign trips, among them," points out Pickler, who was a reporter with the Associated Press for 17 years, covering several administrations. "Especially when he faces a tough re-election challenge, the president needs all the support he can get to ensure he’s making his best case in the media."

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