Communications Aides Reveal Tricks of the Trade
As much as the media loves leaks, sources have their own reasons for doling out hot scoops. And to be a good press secretary, you need to know how to do it.
For example: “I tend to only do scoops on positive stories,” said John Feehery, spokesman for Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.).
That’s just one of the nuggets gleaned by Miami University of Ohio students who attended a panel discussion Monday in which speechwriters and flacks revealed the tricks of their trades.
Feehery told an audience of about 40 that a standard Capitol Hill practice is “to leak to The Associated Press.”
That way the leak will “get The New York Times’ and Washington Post’s attention,” but will also likely be on the front page of a Member’s home district newspaper.
As for speechwriting, Michael Connolly said his job in House Majority Leader Tom DeLay’s (R-Texas) office is a matter of “luck.”
“You just play with the words and eventually the phrase will come,” he explained.
When asked by a student if speechwriters ever write something that goes against their own political views, Connolly replied that he has had no such problems working for DeLay. “If you’re a right-wing attack dog lunatic, he’s the right guy.”
Each profession was represented by a separate panel made up of past and present political staffers.
Kenny Baer, a former speechwriter for Al Gore, said those in his line of work can’t be protective of their words. “There’s no ego, there can’t be any ego,” he said.
Bart Acocella, a former speechwriter for Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe, noted that only one of every 20 speeches is likely “to get even 30 seconds on the evening news.”
Connolly emphasized that the speechwriter’s role is to reduce complicated ideas to a pithy phrase. Policy wonks who like dense expositions on policy aren’t the speechwriter’s audience, he said. “That one line is really the thing you’re coming up with.”
But Trevor Parry-Giles, a University of Maryland professor who participated in the speechwriting panel, decried excessive emphasis on sound bites. “If it all boils down to a sound bite, then we’ve lost something,” he said.
Connolly disagreed. “Most ideas can be boiled down to a single thought and most thoughts, if they’re clear, can be boiled down to a few words,” he said.
But the speechwriters agreed there is room for spontaneity in delivering orations. “There’s nothing worse than having prepared remarks in front of an audience that wants to hear him speak from his heart. It makes him look like a tool,” Connolly said.
Baer said during the 2000 presidential election campaign, Gore improved the spontaneity of his delivery by using cards with single words meant to trigger parts of a speech, rather than using prepared remarks.
Meanwhile, the press secretaries talked mostly about their interaction with reporters. “Nothing gets reporters more angry than not returning phone calls,” Feehery said.
At the same time, the flacks said reporters should be careful not to get information wrong.
Trent Duffy, a press secretary for the White House Office of Management and Budget, said, “If a story is wrong, a fact is wrong, I have an obligation to point that out.” For example, he explained, reports that the deficit level is at historically high levels is true in “nominal” terms, but not when measured as a share of the economy.
Feehery said if he believes a reporter is a “jerk,” then he gives the reporter “the bare minimum. Something else I do, I give their competitors as good a story as I can.”
Feehery advised getting friendly with reporters. “They’re people,” he said. “Mostly they’re trying to meet a deadline.”
He said Democrats tend to be better at schmoozing reporters and attending reporters’ social events than Republicans, however.
Stonewalling received universal condemnation. Then-Rep. Gary Condit’s (D-Calif.) 2001 interview with Connie Chung is “example 101 of how not to handle a crisis,” said Brendan Daly, press secretary to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). “It basically sealed his fate.”