Press secretaries are making headlines, and it is timely to revisit some tricks of the trade for anyone considering taking on such a challenging role. And it is challenging, but with potential to be incredibly rewarding. In fact, I wish all public relations practitioners would work a stint as a press secretary to fully immerse themselves in the 24/7 media relations grind. If you think you’re up to it, take some real-life advice from someone who has served in this role more than once.
- Accept your new reality: You signed up for this, right? First remember that your life is not your own, you can’t really check out from work, and your reputation is one bad email away from being ruined. But hey, no stress! In all honesty, acting as a press secretary (or spokesperson) for an elected official, CEO, or organization is an all-consuming job. News doesn’t take time off, and so it is unlikely you will ever enjoy a slow period while you work in this role. Most nights, you will sleep with your phone, just in case things blow up. When you can’t sleep (anxiety and insomnia are your new best friends), you’ll check emails, read blog posts, scroll through social media until your eyes cross, and otherwise obsess over the day’s events. Congratulations, this is all part of the gig. It’s fun most of the time. But, it is a job that demands your full attention, all of the time. Embrace it.
- Play it straight: Oh, how tempting it can be to act coy with reporters, or play “hide the ball” on news you don’t want to share. Don’t do it. Your best bet is to be as transparent as possible. Of course, legal considerations prevent full disclosure on some topics, but to the extent you can, lay it all out there. Journalists can smell insincerity a mile away, and once they’re on to you, it’s tough, if not impossible, to win back trust. Make a conscious decision to be an honest broker right from the start. It will serve you (and your boss) better in the long run.
- Remember whom you work for: At the end of the day, your job is to represent someone else’s, or some organization’s, priorities. You literally are speaking on their behalf. If their actions, policies, or decisions are incompatible with your morals, ethics, or beliefs, you have some serious thinking to do. You deserve to work in an environment where you are passionate about the goals you are pursuing. On the same note, your boss deserves a press secretary who is “all in” with their ideas or agenda. If you disagree with the direction of your employer, it’s best for both of you to move on. Being a spokesperson requires alignment, or it just won’t work. Make sure you firmly believe in the mission before you sign on to speak up and defend it. Because that’s your job.
- Take the high road: You are in for emails and phone calls you wouldn’t believe. Journalists who previously may have been “friends” will yell at you or try to trip you up, and you’ll receive emails you can’t believe anyone would put into writing. Rise above it. Don’t take the bait. Being a press secretary requires rhino thick skin. Learn to always behave like a duck, calm and collected on the surface, but paddling like crazy underneath. If you don’t have the personality to take tough questions from the media or the public, a press secretary job is not for you.
- Think about the long-term: Chances are you will not have this job forever. Most elected officials turn over press secretaries every few years (burnout is common), so most spokespeople will move on in relative short order. Guard your professional reputation fiercely. You are only as good as people perceive you to be, and once your name is tarnished, it is tough to earn back. Be the ethics watchdog for the person or organization for whom you work, and insist on your voice being heard. If you are expected simply to repeat talking points developed above you, run away. You need a seat at the table to make sure communications are given the proper consideration in rolling out policies and announcements.
- Have fun! When all is said and done, serving as a press secretary or spokesperson is one of the most fun jobs in public relations. You get access to fascinating information before anyone else. You are entrusted with communicating complex ideas or thoughts to a skeptical audience. You get to interact with insanely smart people every day. Someone actually trusts you to deliver their message on their behalf! How cool is that?
Press secretaries are the unsung heroes in public relations. Indeed, they can make or break the person or organization for which they speak. The pressure cooker environment, 24/7 nature of the work, and unrelenting public scrutiny is too much for many people to bear. For those who believe passionately in a cause or person, the chance to speak for them can truly be a once in a lifetime opportunity. Make the most of it by doing it ethically and well.