Di Martino: Take the Call, Embrace the Publicity — or Else

Posted March 18, 2009 at 4:33pm

Many of us who have worked on Capitol Hill have come to understand that Washington isn’t Washington without Capitol Hill. Capitol Hill isn’t Capitol Hill without Roll Call. And Roll Call isn’t Roll Call without HOH. HOH is in our Capitol Hill DNA.

[IMGCAP(1)]However, it’s one thing to read about the personal foibles of your colleagues in HOH and a completely different experience to be a press secretary with HOH holding on your direct line.

With that red light blinking on your phone, each flash marking the march of time as you consider the options that could lead to your untimely demise on the payroll, much can happen. Mouths go dry. Sweat pools on foreheads. Career decisions are rethought.

The mind begins to race: “I should have never sent that e-mail. I thought what happened in Kazakhstan stayed in Kazakhstan! Has my boss paid his income taxes? LA jobs aren’t that bad after all.—

It could be anything, and you just never know when it’s coming. That’s part of the thrill and the public agony that has entertained us during 21 years of HOH.

When dealing with HOH, it’s important to always remember the venerable Ed Henry’s HOH Golden Rule: “Don’t take yourself too seriously.— HOH is about the lighter side of politics.

Where else but HOH can you have two campaign committee flacks trying to best each other’s political fundraising spin by boasting about who failed more college math courses than the other? Or, float the theory that the births of each of your children are somehow cosmically connected to simultaneous world championships in the city of Boston? And, for a flack, is there a better feeling than reading a funny item about a rival that has the office buzzing?

Since I left the Hill, HOH, like most reporters, has ignored my pleas for attention. With that in mind, and to try to add to Ed’s Golden Rule, here’s some unsolicited advice for my flack friends on Capitol Hill: Don’t fear HOH. Embrace HOH. HOH can be your friend. Kind of.

If you find humor in HOH items about everyone else, you should strive to find the humor when your boss is in HOH’s sights. If not, things could go bad. Either way, it’s good copy!

HOH is great for testing your messaging. For example, hypothetically, let’s say your boss’s gray hair is slightly altered (read: colored) in an unfortunate barber shop incident. The potential for embarrassment is great and presents the communications team with a significant challenge.

Instead of giving in to the urge to hide under your desk pinching yourself with large binder clips and rapid-firing staples at your deputy, give HOH something to work with. A list of a possible responses like, “The recent immigration debate caused his natural color to come out of the shadows— or “Does he or doesn’t he? Only his barber knows,— might work.

A humorous and colorful item might put on display your boss’s self-deprecation and could endear him to readers and reporters, and, most important, constituents. If all goes well, your boss might think you have mad crisis communications skills. If not, you’ll have more Guitar Hero time. Anything can happen, and usually does, in HOH.

For many of us in this line of work, HOH is that first read early in the morning, that guilty pleasure you sneak (especially when your boss is mentioned), and the precursor to viral video known as water cooler chat fodder that we live for every Monday and Thursday — wait did I just date myself?

Over the past 21 years, many a press secretary has earned his stripes — and scars — within the comfy column confines of HOH. We’re all the better for going through the ordeal or, better yet, making a deal. Every day we pick up Roll Call to see who’s next, and we are rarely disappointed. Happy birthday, HOH. Oh, and please call me!

David Di Martino is vice president of BGR Public Relations and a 15-year veteran of Capitol Hill.