Getting the Boss’s Name in the Headlines

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Public relations for a politician whether for a President, senator, congressman, governor or any other state or local political figure is usually the job of a press secretary. The simplest way of describing a press secretary's job is "to get the boss's name in the headlines " But, as I think you'll soon see, there is much more to the job.

A typical congressional staff has about 18 people on it, and the press secretary is usually listed in government directories as being one of the top people on the staff (right after the administrative assistant the chief staffer and the person usually in charge of hiring and firing.

A Press Secretary's Duties and Responsibilities

The press secretary, first and foremost, must act as an official spokesperson for the politician. There isn't a day that goes by that I don't answer questions or provide statements to the press about my Congressman's legislative activities.

If I think it is necessary, I will get the Congressman on the phone to answer some questions himself, but his typical work day in Washington is so hectic a mind numbing series of committee meetings, constituents' meetings, numerous other events, and, of course, the work that transpires on the floor of the House that he will often not be available to talk with reporters before deadline, and they will have to settle for my answers. The reporters will frequently quote me by name in the articles or on the air, but it is understood that I am speaking for my boss.

Other duties of a political press secretary may include:
  • Writing press releases and speeches;
  • Helping write a newspaper column;
Clearly, the ideal person to work in this area of public relations is one with the ubiquitous "love of people" but also (at least, perhaps even more, importantly) the ability to express his or her thoughts in a patient and thoughtful manner.

Most of all, someone wishing to enter this emerging field must be able to absorb a wide range of issues, current events and topics as needed. In the last two years, I've led more than sixty sessions, teaching hundreds of men and women how to get their message across in any interview situation.

My clients have ranged from a man who smelled fragrances for a home decorating firm entering the market with a new floral decorator and the commodities representative described at the opening of this article, to a lobbyist on a media tour of New York State (just before a crucial vote in Albany that could cost or save his association millions), a nationally known star of a hit television series, a political candidate, two Olympic silver medalists, a Red Cross representative speaking on the issue of AIDS and blood contamination, and many others.

The media is a foreign country and I'm the tour guide. Just as knowing the language, local customs and laws will make any visit to a foreign capital more pleasurable and informative, my clients will fare better with the media and the media with them if they spend some time learning the lay of the land in the foreign country called "Media/'

Where the Opportunities Are

Look to the larger public relations agencies in major markets or to corporations with a high media profile. In companies where media training is just one of many services or activities, the entry level position might well include administrative duties involving many other aspects of the overall media relations function and/or in the audio/visual department. So you may well find yourself spending as much (or more) time behind a desk as behind the camera. The more involved your potential employer is in media training, the more focused the entry level positions will be.

"So the key to all of this is for the executive to be entertaining...or risk being used as entertainment. No career minded reporter is going to allow an executive to drone on in phrases that have about as much spark as a wet match. They must keep the show interesting."

Media consultant Shelley Klein of Klein Associates in New York agrees. "Don't be good guests," she stresses. "There's no energy in it. You've got your hands folded and you're waiting to be asked the right questions. That's deadly. Take control."

Klein's training sessions, which range from a few hours consulting to weekend seminars, go beyond basic speaking techniques to teaching businesspeople the art of performing. "People are information flooded," she asserts. "To get your message across, you do have to entertain."

Dorothy Sarnoff, who began such sessions more than 15 years ago and has trained thousands says, "The biggest mistake businesspeople make is not rehearsing and not organizing well. When I'm doing the 'Today' show, "she admits, "I'll lock myself in the office and rehearse for three or four hours."

"There are right and wrong ways to practice, however," she says. 'It's a mistake for a corporate executive to have a member of his staff rehearse with him.

"No staff member wants to make the boss look bad by asking tough questions. Instead, ask yourself, 'what questions do I pray they won't ask me?' Then rehearse answering those."

Giving definite answers is also important. "People are looking for experts somebody who has the answers to life, somebody to step in where God left off," the former TV producer explained. "The best interview subjects appear to be very secure even when they are saying T don't know.'"

Srully Blotnick, noted author and business columnist for Forbes magazine, writes, "Any executive who expects to be treated with the same courtesy usually shown him in the executive suite is in for a big surprise. The Romans may have thrown Christians to the lions for entertainment, but moderns have a version of this practice all their own. It calls for subjecting an unsuspecting guest on a television program to questions that range from the pertinent to the impertinent.

"Will you be insulted? Probably not, there are interviewers who like to offend and even intimidate a guest, if they can, but they are in the minority. What we have seen during the last ten years is a major shift towards an equally combative situation, where the host puts two guests against each other, allowing the host to come off as the good guy."

"Controversy not illuminating an issue is the goal, and the show's host and producer are quite willing to prod guests into adopting extremist versions of a position. For instance, on five occasions over a 17 month period (in Chicago, New York, Boston, Washington and Los Angeles), I have had producers ask me during a commercial break to be more argumentative during the next segment. I wanted to hear what the other person's position was; the TV folks wanted me to argue. As one host remarked, only half kiddingly, "what do you think we have you here for?'"

Getting Involved In Media Training

"If I were to advise students today what to study," says one Midwest trainer who counts many Fortune 500 companies among her clients, Td tell them to study journalism, study psychology, study courses in design, English, drama and technology. And then watch TV; listen to the radio, read papers and magazines.

"Every interview you experience, just imagine being in the other person's shoes. How would you have answered that question? What would you have worn? What would be your agenda? How would you sit and where would you look?"

'Ten years ago/' notes Lou Williams of Chicago based Savlin/Williams Associates, "media training was done only on special occasions. Now it's become a cottage industry."

At Williams' public relations firm, media training volume now accounts for about one third of the business. Communispond Inc., headquartered in New York, does nothing but consult corporate managements on improving communication, offering help in media interviews, public speaking and memo writing.

Some companies and executives are growing more confident. Jack Hilton, one of the first independent television consultants, says trouble environmental damage, a strike, a recall used to be the only reason he gained a client. "But now (business) has discovered television and come to a conclusion about it. Now it wants to use the media to tell its story."

The consultants don't divulge dollar figures, but a senior vice president at one of the nation's largest public relations firms estimates that revenues for all such U.S. companies grew by substantially in the last decade.

The Nightmares Executives Dread

Today many business executives have recognized the nightmare of facing lights, cameras and a studio producer saying "action!" Or a reporter with a legal pad filled with dozens of provocative, even embarrassing questions, ready to examine everything from quarterly reports to nasty allegations by a former employee (who, of course, worked for the company before the executive was even hired!).

"We've all been '60 Minutes' to death, but there is a great fear on the part of business executives with the media/' says Paul Alvarez, chairman of Ketchum Public Relations in New York." Nobody is being served well when someone's not communicating properly."

Considering that each day about 50,000 people are interviewed by radio, television and newspaper reporters with millions of viewers and readers reviewing the results it's no wonder more business executives are getting interested in the news coverage that invariably will affect their companies. And as business increasingly becomes the focus for news, public affairs and features inquiries, more and more companies and their executives hoping to shape the final results a bit more in their favor are turning to public relations professionals to prepare them for the question and answer sessions to come.

The world of television is especially foreign to the uninitiated closed door studios, hi tech equipment, blinding lights. Unless an executive is prepared for the rules, sounds, sights and standards, a television interview can quickly turn into a personal and professional disaster for him, his company, even his whole industry!

Robert B. Ormsby, president of Lockheed Georgia Co., reportedly once said, "In executive ranks, you usually have 30 90 minutes to make your point. On television, under the best of circumstances, you have 90 seconds."

And what print reporter conducting an over the phone interview on deadline or radio broadcaster looking for 30 second bites of information to re broadcast at 5 p.m. has that much more time?

The Rise of "Communications Trainers''

When the challenge is appropriately met, a media appearance can be a solid transference of information. Whether the subject is economics, politics or social trends, some basic skills must be mastered.

To meet the demand, hundreds of "communications trainers" many of them former broadcasters with ample experience in TV news departments have set up operations nationwide. These groups range from the substantial communications training groups of some of the major public relations companies, complete with elaborate studios and control rooms, to individual practitioners with a videotape machine, a small camera, and a playback monitor.
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