Bonjean: Never Try to Bribe HOH, and Other Advice

Posted March 18, 2009 at 4:31pm

Congratulations to HOH for turning 21! But I remember first reading HOH when the column was only 7 years old. As a new press secretary for a House Republican, I looked at it every week with heightened interest. My office would scan it for the juicy tidbits and gossip of Capitol Hill happenings. Professionally, I learned from other spokesmen and Members of Congress just how to successfully engage with this column.

[IMGCAP(1)]However, it was especially enlightening and entertaining to watch how badly some offices caught in the HOH cross hairs fumbled the ball. Through the years, while rising in the Republican ranks, I learned what to do and what not to do with HOH while watching the successes and mistakes of others.

Only when HOH was old enough to get into PG-13 movies did I start to seriously work with the reporters who wrote the column. It was during this time that I began to understand how much fun or trouble working with this column actually encompassed. As the communications director for the House Republican Conference, I used to chair the House-Senate Republican “war room— meetings of communication directors from the leadership, committees and active press secretaries. HOH would often publish leaked conversations of our meetings designed by the source to damage several leadership offices including my own. The drama that would engulf the subsequent meetings was always pretty tense with most staffers furious over the leaks.

When I worked as the top spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), the reporters for HOH and I were professionally joined at the hip. The column reporters and sources were omnipresent in the Capitol, and we stayed on pretty good terms even through some turbulent times. And I never thought in my wildest dreams that an HOH item would help grease the skids for my first date with my wife back in 2006. I had won the Quinn Gillespie Life Jacket Award for helping press secretaries, and she sent me a congratulatory e-mail.

Now that HOH is 21 and old enough to drink, I thought it would be useful to offer a few rules of the road to successfully engage with the column.

• Always take the call from the HOH reporter. But, be advised, if you answer the question immediately, you will have to live with it. Always tell HOH you will call them back to either think about your response or get it cleared from your office — even if it is going to be a “no comment.— HOH will think you are at least attempting to answer the question if you take a pass.

• Drink no wine before its time. Never try to bribe HOH. Ever. I remember when a press secretary offered HOH a nice bottle of wine in exchange for leniency in an upcoming column. Needless to say, the bribe backfired, causing a nice picture of the bottle along with a juicy HOH column. That staffer was quickly dismissed by his office and the wine was returned.

• Try to be funny, unless it’s a funeral. Humor goes a long way with HOH and can get you out of the worst jams or get your item more attention. Some of the best staffers and Members use humor to connect with readers. For example, if your boss is driving and causes a fender bender and no one is hurt, say something funny about it. This will distract from the fact that the Member shouldn’t be behind the wheel.

• Better to feed HOH than to be fed. I have always believed that if my former bosses did something interesting, met with a celebrity or found themselves in a humorous situation, it was always worth feeding it to HOH. You’ll simply have a better relationship with the paper during the ups and downs of the office.

Ron Bonjean is partner at the public affairs firm Singer Bonjean Strategies. He is a former chief of staff of the Senate Republican Conference and spokesman for Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and Commerce Secretary Don Evans.