Friday, January 23, 2009

The Five Keys for Obama's Communicators

Commiserating darkly with an acquaintance from an administration now long gone by, the fellow asked me about the lessons I’d learned during the past several years as a spokesman for a government agency. By nature cheerful but by temperament dim, I stared blankly into the phone. Because the thing is, the guy asking me is an authentic Thinker, a bonafide intellectual. He was a senior White House advisor to two presidents, appears on political talk shows, writes a syndicated column. Insightful, with big ideas that have been put into small legislative print and become law. “You should collect your thoughts on this,” he said.

You see the dilemma immediately. While I have seen a lot during my time in Washington (see “The Fixer," May 21, 2008), I tend to look at the experience and lessons in a rather mechanistic fashion. Why, some might call it primitive. So I thought about my pal’s suggestion and realized that although I couldn’t hit the high notes he contemplated, I could outline several elaborately unadorned ideas that the new press and media people in the new Administration might do well to follow. Hence, Nellie's Five Keys for Obama's Communicators:

1. Always carry three pens. No matter where you are in Washington, someone -- customarily a senior official who should know better -- has forgotten their pen when they need it most. Hand them one – everlasting goodwill results. Bonus: Let them have it for keeps.

2. Have a fallback comment for every situation. A press person is often in a number of meetings, or walking down hallways with nervous, chattering staffers and everyone is going on and on with all this policy and regulatory jargon, which is always confusing and dull. 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. Don’t join an office Coffee Club. Yeah, it all sounds good, the promise of the Bottomless Cup, club members who are energetic and well-meaning, a decaf d├ętente, but the despair and disappointments are huge. The fact is, when you really need some joe on a dragging afternoon, it comes down to the rash symbolism of an empty pot on a lonely counter in a far-away break-room.

4. Handle charts with grace. Big, stiff cardboard charts covered with colored grids and symbols are the defining totem of my generation, whether they diagram 2008 Oil Imports From South Asian Non-Aligned States or are graphs showing Rich People Making Too Damn Much. As the Capital’s reigning chart boy (see “Chart Boy”, April 27, 2007), I have hauled these monstrosities all over town for presentations and speeches, trailing resignedly in the wake of my various data-driven bosses. Not even my service in the Army prepared me for the stoicism and courage required to enter a hotel ballroom, place a chart on an easel, and stand next to it in front of 300 people.

5. Memorize a lot of scores. No matter what the season, knowing the scores to ballgames gives you a distinct edge over your peers. Washington is full of lulls in Important Business and invariably sports comes up. An Assistant Secretary will say, “See that Cowboys game?” You reply: “Wow, a real cliffhanger – 17 -13.” Or, it can be the obscure: “How about Toledo?!” Your answer: “35-7 over Akron. Jeez, who saw that coming?” Sure, it’s transparent. But hey, here’s where you can take credit for actual research.

Now, as you can see, I’ve dispensed with the inconsequential stuff – you know, ‘tell the truth’, ‘respect others,’ ‘remember you’re serving the President and the American people.’ Everybody knows about those sorts of things. Instead, believe me: it’s the five biggies above that will get you through. After all, look how valuable they proved for me.