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I'm Jake McKee

People call me The Community Guy

What if the White House had a community manager?

Posted on 26 Aug 2008 | 4 comments

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The NPR “Fresh Air” podcast recently had an episode made up of a collection of interview snippets from former White House press secretaries from Marlin Fitzwater to Scott McClellan.

As a huge fan of The West Wing, I was always fascinated by the role of CJ, the fictional Press Secretary. Here was a person largely responsible for the way the entire world perceived the actions of the White House, yet was only allowed (or able) to exert minimal control over the actions that lead to those perceptions. In listening to this podcast, it was fascinating to hear how these men had struggled to deliver on their sense of duty to country by being honest with the press, while simultaneously creating marketing for the White House.

This “caught between two worlds” feeling kicked my empathy production center into overdrive. I couldn’t understand why until it dawned on me that community managers and press secretaries have quite a lot in common.

  • Both roles walk a thin line between “outside” (press corps/fan community) and “inside” (White House/company).
  • Both roles bring the ire of both sides because they don’t seem to pay enough attention to “us” (whichever side is “us” at a given moment).
  • There is an honest desire to both stick up for the outside, while defending the inside.
  • Both roles are granted perceived power far greater than their actual job description probay grants them.
  • Tenacity and the ability to take a good beating are a crucial skill.
  • Both roles rely on a certain passion for the topic and a certain faith in the organization.

The similarities were eery, and made me want to learn more about how press secretaries hone their skills. Here’s a few things that I’d love to learn if I had a chance to sit down with a White House (or other governmental department) press secretary:

  • How do you build mental stamina when people are yelling at and distrustful of you by default?
  • How do you find a balance between representing the official position and your own beliefs?
  • How do you add personality to the interaction with your external audiences without seeming disingenuous?
  • Can you truly become any sort of friends with your external audience?

Without question community managers could learn many positive things from the press secretaries, but it’s also clear that they are a harbinger of doom as well. At the heart of the role, the goal of the press secretary is make the administration (or department) look good. Above all else, they are a defensive tool that has, at least in the past, inherently blocked true transparency. True discussion has not been the discourse of the day. Hell, they’ve been lampooned as heartless, half-alive robots who are absolutely unable to get off their talking points. See this hilarious video from The Onion for proof.

Perhaps that’s starting to change. Perhaps the rise of the social web principles have started to take root in government as well. Ann Compton, president of the White House Correspondents Association, said that Bush administration press secretary Tony Snow was “the first press secretary who chose to use the podium as a way to argue the president’s case — not just in the president’s words, but in his own.”

I would imagine that the White House will always have to have a press secretary. But can you imagine if the press secretary was replaced with a community manager? Someone charged specifically with doing a better job of connecting, explaining, discussing the issues of the day… oh to dream.

WIth the way the Millennials are impacting and redefining culture, maybe this is more than a silly dream of a silly community guy…

UPDATE: Thanks to @transitioner for pointing out the Citizen’s Solution Council.

  • http://www.kickapps.com Michael Chin

    Well said! This is exactly why I think there's a HUGE opportunity for the PR agencies of the world. There are so many reasons why they're suited for this job. Problem is, most don't get it and still treat it like traditional media relations–most are trained to immediately take a defensive posture, trying to control stories & take away transparency. We should NOT expect brands to give up complete control but the opportunity is THERE for some REAL conversations. Can PR agencies evolve?

  • http://www.blogcouncil.org Michael E. Rubin, Blog Council

    “Above all else, they are a defensive tool that has, at least in the past, inherently blocked true transparency.” Jake, in some cases, they are kept in the dark deliberately and their ignorance is used by others as a defensive tactic. Scott McClellan has repeatedly said he was kept out of meetings and briefings specifically so he would not be obligated to report to the press what he had heard. Years after Watergate, Nixon press secretary Ron Ziegler denied ever having knowingly lied to the press and claimed he was used as a “vehicle for a cover-up.”

    I also would love to see a press secretary more in the mode of a community manager. The job description would have to dramatically change, though. It would become less about spinning the message or making the boss look good and more about connecting sources (reporters to White House staff?). You know yourself that acting as a community manager means being more of a Yenta than a paid mouthpiece.

    Personally, I'd love to see the press secretary start blogging. Something tells me that the “gotcha” culture of Washington, D.C. would never allow for it to happen.

    Michael — It's not just PR agencies that need to evolve, it's the clients. Speaking as someone who used to work as the “emerging media guy” at a PR agency, I can tell you that many of the clients are nowhere near ready for that kind of conversational PR. Most still want a simple black and white spreadsheet at the end of the month along with the billings that explain “I paid for X and got Y.” Social media doesn't really work that way, and it's going to take a lot of education to explain that 10 positive comments in a blog post equals as much if not more than an obscure placement in a New York Times piece.

    This is not a pessimistic statement. I really believe that we're getting there. But it's going to take a while and is certainly not going to happen overnight.

    And just for the record — one of my favorite CJ Cregg quotes was “We screwed up by telling the truth.”

    Also for the record — I had a crush on CJ Cregg and still want to be Leo McGarry when I grow up. Don't tell anyone. *grin*

    …Michael

    —-
    312-932-9000 / michael@blogcouncil.org / twitter: merubin
    I am a Blog Council employee and this is my personal opinion.

  • http://scottmonty.com scottmonty

    Hey, sign me up for any job that would let me go toe-to-toe with the likes of Helen Thomas and Sam Donaldson. Intelligent, passionate people who are willing to shout are much more fun to work with than the silent types who just write down what you say and go on their merry way.

  • http://scottmonty.com scottmonty

    Hey, sign me up for any job that would let me go toe-to-toe with the likes of Helen Thomas and Sam Donaldson. Intelligent, passionate people who are willing to shout are much more fun to work with than the silent types who just write down what you say and go on their merry way.