Ex-Hill Staffer Offers Handbook for Public Relations

Posted April 20, 2004 at 6:52pm

Former Capitol Hill aide Brad Fitch has done a huge favor for press secretaries and wannabe spokesmen everywhere with the publishing of his new book, “Media Relations Handbook for Agencies, Associations, Nonprofits and Congress.”

The textbook title belies a delightful immersion into the invigorating, frustrating and sometimes thankless world of public affairs — a world that Fitch came to know firsthand through his stints on the staffs of four Members of Congress — and provides valuable advice for those who flack for a living.

Fitch, who currently serves as the deputy director of Congressional Management Foundation, a nonprofit group that provides training, consulting and research to help improve the management of Congressional offices, expertly translates his own personal experiences into candid lessons for those pursuing careers in the field.

When describing his first job on the Hill working for then-Rep. Tom McMillen (D-Md.), Fitch describes a piece of key advice he received from McMillen’s administrative assistant, Jerry Grant, a guy who he says usually dressed in “casual shirts and docksiders, with a good cigar nearby.”

“Jerry knew all the messy communications problems a young press secretary could get into, and he helped me avoid most of them,” Fitch writes in the first chapter, “First Steps.” “When I wanted to fire back at an editor who (I thought) had unfairly criticized the congressman in an editorial, Jerry gave me my first political rule: ‘Never get in a pissing contest with someone who buys ink by the barrel.’”

The 345-page book covers all the terrain — from the technical how-tos of writing press releases, backgrounders and op-eds to interacting with Congressional campaign operations or handling communications in a time of crisis.

One fascinating read is the contrasting case study of separate Congressional sex scandals involving former Rep. Gary Condit (D-Calif.) and current Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.).

Condit lost his re-election in 2002 after it was revealed he had a relationship with missing Washington intern Chandra Levy, who later turned up dead in Rock Creek Park. Condit denied having anything to do with her disappearance or murder.

The scandal involving Frank emerged in 1989 when news emerged that he was engaged in a gay relationship with a convicted felon who was running a prostitution service out of Frank’s Capitol Hill apartment.

But Fitch points out that Frank’s survival and Condit’s demise had more to do with how they confronted their respective crises than the facts of the matters themselves.

For one, Frank issued a full letter of apology to his constituents, admitting that what he did “was wrong” and made it clear that he accepted responsibility for his actions. He not only cooperated with an investigation into the debacle by the House Committee on Standards and Official Conduct, Fitch adds, he requested it and dealt with the media regularly, holding long news conferences and telling his side of what had happened.

Condit, by contrast, refused to take responsibility for his actions, acted defensively, not apologetically, and appeared to be unhelpful in investigations launched by both the police and private investigators hired by the Levy family.

Fitch suggested that Condit might have been able to save his own hide had he stuck to two basic tenets — “full disclosure early” and “be motivated by public interest, not private interest.”

The “Crisis” chapter also has helpful hints for helping lawmakers to avoid travel scandals. Some of Fitch’s key points:

• Don’t go anywhere sunny or fun;

• Don’t go anywhere outside the United States with indoor plumbing;

• Don’t go anywhere with spouses;

• Don’t use government planes or helicopters for personal use; and

• Don’t go on any trip without a full itinerary.

Chapter seven, “Dealing With the Principal,” provides an amusing and candid portrait of the types of bosses one might encounter on the Hill (or elsewhere) and how to deal with them as a public relations professional.

Fitch describes the “They’re Out to Get Me” boss who is paranoid when it comes to the media. He also vividly explains the challenges of working with the “media hog” or the “media mouse,” and he outlines how to “defuse the exploding principal.”

“Let the principal vent on you,” Fitch suggests. “It’s much better if the congressman blows a gasket at his press secretary than the editor of a local paper. Allow the principal to vent his frustrations. This might be all he needs to get it out of his system.”

Then again, some lawmakers might need the “join the rage” approach.

“I knew a member of Congress who would blow up at small slights in one newspaper. At first his press secretary argued with the member point by point, defending the news organization and showing how the coverage was actually balanced. This only made the member even madder and led him to question the loyalty of the press secretary,” Fitch wrote.

“After many battles, the press secretary tried a different tactic. If the member hit 6.0 on the Richter Scale, the press secretary hit a 7.0. If the member raised his voice, the press secretary shouted and flapped his arms,” the book noted. “This led to a reversal of roles, with the member trying to calm down the press secretary, worried that his spokesman was about to do something rash to ruin his reputation with the newspaper.”