Here Are Five Basics for Hill Communicators

Posted February 25, 2009 at 2:39pm

Commiserating with an acquaintance about experiences from an administration now long gone, the fellow casually asked me what I had learned during two decades of being a Hill and executive branch press secretary. Because my key achievement when I came to town was knowing a bunch of lines from “Caddyshack” and I have since memorized even more, I didn’t how to reply.

See, this guy is an authentic thinker, an intellectual, a senior White House adviser to two presidents, with big ideas that have been put into small legislative print and become law. “You should collect your thoughts on this,” he said.

Easy for him to say. Because while I have seen a lot, I tend to look at the experience and lessons in a rather primitive fashion. So I realized that if I couldn’t hit the high, thoughtful notes that he contemplated, I did have a few basic suggestions for Hill communicators — as well as the new cadre of media hires in the administration:

1. Always Carry Three Pens. No matter where you are in Washington, D.C., someone — customarily a Member of Congress who should know better — has forgotten his pen when he needs it most. Hand him one — everlasting good will results. Bonus: Let him have it for keeps. The third pen? For his chief of staff.

2. Have a Fallback Comment for Every Situation. A Hill press secretary is often in a number of meetings or walking down hallways with nervous, chattering staffers and Members, and everyone is going on and on with all this important dull policy and regulatory jargon. I find I often lapse into a stupor and then wham, suddenly someone turns to me and says, “What do you think?” I snap out of my reverie and reply like a robot, “There’s a lot in what’s been said here, folks.” If that line is taken, my backup: “Well, I imagine we’ll need to examine all of this further down the road.”

3. Be Gracious to All Staffers, Big and Small. About a year into my first job as press secretary for Rep. Bill Thomas (R-Calif.), a guy working for Rep. Andy Ireland (R-Fla.) called me out of the blue looking for advice on his boss’s newsletter. I didn’t know him at all, but I’m good-natured enough and I chatted with him, walked him through some stuff we’d used and then went to his office to show him what I’d done with the Thomas newsletters. It wasn’t beyond the call of duty — just being nice. No big deal.

Well, that guy was Ed Gillespie, and we all know where this ends. Sure, our paths diverged a little — he’s a superstar and I’m a permanent political hack. But it does illustrate that the Hill is genuinely a springboard for talent, and it’s never hard to be gracious to folks, even when you don’t know where they may end up.

4. Carry Charts With Grace. Big, stiff cardboard charts covered with colored grids and symbols are the defining badge of my generation, whether they diagram 2008 Oil Imports From South Asian Non-Aligned States or graphs showing the Rich Making Too Damn Much. The House and Senate floors function like a conveyor belt for these things. Early on in my Hill tenure, I recall seeing some harried, sweaty, disheveled staffer carrying one of these 3-by-5 monstrosities in a Rayburn House Office Building corridor and thinking, “Man, that could be me some day.”

Well, it was — and for years I hauled charts all over the Hill and town for presentations and speeches. Not even my service in the Army prepared me for the stoicism and courage required to place a chart on an easel and stand next to it in front of 300 people in a hotel ballroom.

5. Memorize a Lot of Scores. No matter what the season, knowing the scores to ball games gives you a distinct edge over your peers. Washington is full of lulls in important business, and invariably, sports comes up. Someone will say, “See that Cowboys game?” You reply: “Yep, a real cliffhanger — 17-13.”

Depending on the Member’s district or alma mater, it can involve the obscure: “How about Toledo?!” You feign amazement and say, “Wow, 35-7 over Akron. Who saw that coming?” Sure, it’s transparent. But hey, here’s where you can take credit for actual research.

Now, I’ve dispensed with the inconsequential stuff — you know, “remember you’re serving the Congress and the American people,” “respect others,” “Longworth cafeteria closes at 3,” and “tell the truth.” Everybody knows about those sorts of things.

But I’m still myopic enough to think that being a Hill press secretary is a pretty big deal. It was when I came to town with my “Caddyshack” rap, and it still is. As I said to Gillespie about 20 years ago when I handed him three camera-ready articles for his newsletter, “So you got that going for you. Which is nice.”

Jeff Nelligan is former director of media affairs at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.