White House press secretary confronts war on truth

Obama era press veteran Jen Psaki quickly demonstrated that communication with the American people and the rest of the world will be very different under the Biden administration.

A newly ebullient Dr. Anthony Fauci briefed the media with press secretary Jen Psaki on Thursday. (Photo credit: Getty Images).
A newly ebullient Dr. Anthony Fauci briefed the media with press secretary Jen Psaki on Thursday. (Photo credit: Getty Images).

Press conferences play numerous different roles in the communications process and all those elements have been in play this week as a new administration took over at the White House.

A press conference is rarely the place where a journalist will uncover an exclusive story or earth-shattering revelation – and that applies just as much to such gatherings in the White House press briefing room, which have been reinstated on a daily basis by incoming White House press secretary Jen Psaki.

There were sighs of relief among the press corps as Psaki got straight to work on Wednesday and oversaw an open and respectful press briefing. PR pros universally welcomed a more positive representation of the apex of their craft demonstrated by an assured Psaki, who showed no first-day nerves.

In a symbolic move, hard-copy subscriptions to The New York Times and The Washington Post, suspended under President Donald Trump in late 2019, have also resumed.

Leading White House correspondents such as The Times’ Maggie Haberman, CNN’s Kaitlan Collins or NPR’s Ayesha Rascoe might participate in the press briefings, but they dig out their exclusive material through constant interaction with their sources and contacts inside and outside the administration.

After all, why would they divulge their story angles or specific lines of enquiry to a roomful of their competitors?

Most of their sources are referenced or quoted on background and not with direct attribution, which frustrates members of the public but is an essential part of the process if the sources are to be able to remain in post. Otherwise they just wouldn’t be able to speak to journalists at all.

If conducted properly, it’s a system that works for the media and the administration in equal measure. For all his opprobrium of the media, it was a system President Trump willingly participated in when it suited him.

The regime and interaction with the media under President Joe Biden and press secretary Psaki is going to be very different from the previous administration.

Trump famously told CBS’ Lesley Stahl in 2017 that he attacks the press “to discredit you all and demean you all … so when you write negative stories about me, no one will believe you."

But from now on the media will no longer be regarded as the “enemy of the people” from one of the most powerful pulpits in the world. Psaki already stated in her opening press session that she had “deep respect for the role of a free and independent press,” a far cry from the most recent rhetoric and immature behavior of Trump’s final press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany.

PRWeek took a lot of stick for including McEnany in our 2020 Power List, due to the unethical and duplicitous way she went about her business, which many readers rightly noted did not represent a good example of PR in practice for anyone to aspire to.

But the reason McEnany made our list speaks to another element of the purpose of the White House press briefings: the crucial role they play in communicating to the U.S. population and to the world about what the president of the United States and their administration is thinking and doing. That makes it a powerful position whoever is the incumbent and whatever they do with that platform.

That’s why it is so important that, while there will always be conflict, disagreement and dodging of questions between the media and the White House press team – that’s the nature of the ongoing back and forth with the fourth estate – the process itself is underpinned by mutual respect.

As Haberman noted on Twitter: “It’s hard to overstate how toxic having a press secretary do what McEnany did for six months during a true crisis like a pandemic was.”

But there is also a responsibility on the media to do its part to uphold the credibility of political coverage. Too often White House press briefings have been diminished by journalists grandstanding for the TV cameras, asking fatuous questions and not being properly prepared to quickly follow up a response from the dais in the Brady Briefing Room.

Axios’ Jonathan Swan showed the way to go in his interview with Trump in August last year broadcast on HBO. He was extremely well prepared and rebutted many of the president’s false claims immediately with real facts and figures at hand.

Too few reporters are able to do this - including Stahl in her last interview with Trump - and, especially if you are going to ask a question at a set piece press conference, you do need to make the most of that opportunity. As Axios CEO and cofounder Jim VandeHei told me this week, if reporters spent less time tweeting and more time researching their interviews they’d be much more effective.

VandeHei guested on PRWeek’s Coffee Break and talked about Axios’ new bill of rights and guidelines for its journalists to be nonpartisan on social media. “All of us in the media can tone down the gamesmanship and tone down the noise to try to get people to focus on the things that matter — give them clarity,” said VandeHei.

As Psaki conducted a press conference Thursday with Dr. Anthony Fauci, newly appointed chief medical adviser to President Biden, it was refreshing to see a focus on the thing that matters most at the moment – getting a grip on the horrendous COVID-19 health pandemic that has now surpassed the number of deaths in the U.S. experienced as a result of the Second World War.

Fauci will no longer have to pussyfoot around the scientific facts for fear of upsetting the commander in chief. As he said at the podium yesterday, he has a mandate from Biden to be "completely transparent, open and honest" with the American people and to “make everything we do be based on science and evidence."

He added: "One of the new things in this administration is, if you don't know the answer, don’t guess. Just say you don't know the answer."

That’s the power of the White House press platform and that’s why it is so good to return to a time when the American people and the rest of the world can expect to receive accurate information and an open approach from those conducting proceedings – always under the scrutiny of a free and persistent press corps.

There is a long way to go, and a considerable constituency that doesn’t trust the press or experts such as Dr. Fauci – and some never will.

But it’s the responsibility of the White House press secretary, possibly the highest-profile PR role in the world, and the wider media to act in ways that can start to win the war on truth that has plagued America in the past four years.

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