Jay Carney and the Modern Press Secretary

With Robert Gibbs leaving to focus on the 2012 re-election campaign and Obama looking to restructure his cabinet accordingly, Jay Carney has been given the opportunity to fill the void as the new White House press secretary. Considering the crucial position of the press secretary in maintaining a positive relationship between the president and the media, his appointment has been met with several notable articles  evaluating his ability to address emerging media trends.

As noted in a recent New York Times article, Gibbs was an important part of Obama’s dominant coalition – the small group of key decision-makers in an organization. In contrast, Carney spent the last two years as VP Joe Biden’s chief spokesman, largely removed from direct communication with the president. This change is reflective of the White House’s attempt to distance itself from media criticism as exceedingly insular and tactical.

However, the modern press secretary has come to embody the role of policymaker and press secretary. To gain the trust of the media, this individual must be perceived as having a strong and trusting relationship with the president. Carney’s exclusion from the dominant coalition will hurt his credibility, particularly in his first few months.

In “Communication Advice from Press Secretaries: President’s Trusted Mouthpiece,” Priya Ramesh outlines four qualities necessary for the modern press secretary:

  • Communicate clearly and effectively. It is necessary to act as a conduit of information between the president and the media. The secretary cannot merely broadcast messages to the press corps without forming a mutual relationship of trust and transparency. Similarly, the individual must effectively represent the media’s interests to the president as well.
  • Learn how to collaborate. The job demands a collaborative style “within and with the media” in order to be considered as a credible source of information.
  • Stay ahead of the 24/7 news cycle. With online journalism and social media spreading news at a faster pace than ever before, the secretary must be aware of anything and everything that could be relevant to a press conference. The worst possible scenario would be to find yourself surprised by a question at the podium.
  • Walk the line between lying and withholding information. With regard to the White House, it’s inevitable that moments will arise that require the press secretary to withhold information from the media or general public. These arise from security needs or privacy concerns and are an accepted part of public affairs. Yet, as Clinton’s former press secretary Michael McCurry put it, it was acceptable at times to “tell the truth slowly.” The need to maintain credibility and protect national interest is a fragile balance that must be managed carefully.

In Carney’s first press conference, he was asked if his first priority was to “promote the interest of the president or provide us with unvarnished information.” In his response, he emphasized his inclusive and accessible role to help both the president and the press. By focusing on his past relationships with members of the press corps and stressing transparency, he can compensate for his perceived lack of credibility among Obama’s dominant coalition.

His summary embodied the role of the modern press secretary ideally:

“The office the press secretary has is symbolically located halfway between the briefing room and the Oval Office. I think that really says something about what the nature of the job is.”

After the jump, another West Wing clip with a great example of handling tough questions in the briefing room. Yes, I understand it’s a TV show. No, I don’t care – it’s entirely relevant and you will learn something from watching it.



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3 responses to “Jay Carney and the Modern Press Secretary

  1. I really enjoyed this post and how you describe the “modern press secretary.” Every side of public relations is continually changing, even within politics. The last tip is definitely the trickiest and I’m glad I don’t have to walk that line. I think that the thin line between withholding information and lying to the public will always be a prominent issue in the office of press secretary.

    And a personal thank you for the West Wing reference. I have to thank that show for my personal political growth.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Liz. Isn’t the whole withholding information issue something we’ve just come to accept though? I mean, for the amount of controversy over Wikileaks releasing US diplomatic cables, was anyone really surprised? We understand that there are some things we’re not supposed to know. On the other hand, it’s our responsibility to put pressure on the government to make sure that understanding isn’t taken advantage of. Hopefully the press secretary is someone that understands this balance and can manage it effectively – the smallest mistake can have massive repercussions for either side.

    I’m stoked that you enjoy the West Wing too! It’s easily my favorite show. Stay tuned to the posts here, I’m sure there will be more videos and links about it in the future.

  3. From government to corporate public relations, effective communication is all about trust, and I love that Carney gets that! In order to be a truly modern press secretary, do you think Carney should incorporate social media into his tactics like Gibbs did? While it might help his credibility with a younger public, do you think it’s ultimately necessary or useful?

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