Confessions of a PIO
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders will shortly be on her way back to Arkansas after two head-spinning years of dueling with the reporters trying to make sense of the Trump administration. Whether her office retains any relevance, given the president’s propensity to limit his communication to tweets generally responding to Fox News coverage, remains to be seen. As many have noted, the briefing room where Sanders performed her magic for the press and national viewers has been gathering dust for months.
It’s a pretty easy guess that the D.C. media members won’t be mourning this departure. More likely, they’ll be drafting pieces speculating about whether the press office will ever return to something like normal Pre D.J. Trump. It’s a good question. Certainly, CNN’s Jim Acosta, who once had his high-powered press access pass stripped on Sanders’ orders only to have a judge order it reinstated, can’t be optimistic about the future and her replacement, if the president even bothers to appoint one.
Media members, who have long been convinced that the presidential spokesperson’s first resort when faced with tough questions is to lie, have been exiled to the asphalt of a White House driveway to extract increasingly brief comments. Tweets, very rare on the record comments from White House officials and a truly Biblical flood of leaks from dozens of presidential staffers and knowledgeable and connected individuals. fill the information gap.
Take it from one who’s been there, political press secretaries have traditionally had some serious problems and conflicts of interest. Usually with a background as working reporters, they often feel an obligation to tell the truth to their former colleagues or to at least find a way to present the negatives in such a way as to protect their boss. Sarah Sanders had no such background, or apparently, scruples.
More important, they must also persuade the reporters that they’re tuned into what’s going on internally and are credibly up to speed on the policy being pushed by the office or administration they’re speaking for or representing. It’s been obvious from the beginning of the Trump administration that its press and communications shops are consistently left in the dust by the latest staff firing or policy tweets, requiring them to play catch-up to be on top of the news.
But how do I know? Having once worked as public information officer for CNMI Gov. Froilan C. “Lang” Tenorio, I know the signs. Although the PIO in the Commonwealth is a cabinet level position, cabinet meetings were rare in my two years there. I wasn’t generally a part of policy discussions, but did fairly soon figure out the handful of persons who were consulted on such matters, to the extent that I could crank out a competent press release covering them.
But like Trumpian tweets, the governor had his own direct communications strategy with the media, which the local reporters soon figured out. Pulling into the Capitol Hill Governor’s Office parking lot, circa 8 a.m., he was available for an impromptu news conference — like Sarah Sanders — on the asphalt, but nothing coordinated by or with me. My morning exercise was sprinting out to the parking lot, notebook in hand, to find out what news we were putting out for the day and passing it along to those reporters who were late to get out of bed. Not much or any communications strategy involved, but a lot of direct access to the decider, as President George W. Bush described himself.
Need I say that Gov. Lang was pretty popular with reporters and editors? I on the other hand felt somewhat neglected from time to time. When I complained to someone better connected that a word from the boss about my work, up or down, would be appreciated, I was assured that if he wasn’t happy, I would hear about it and promptly. I had seen enough to find this comforting.
Sarah Sanders’ departure was announced by Trump tweet, which immediately raised questions about whether she remained in the president’s good graces. The president attempted to dispel this at a function the next morning.
“’She’s a warrior,’ [Trump] added, kissing [Sanders] affectionately on the side of the head,” the Washington Post reported. In fact, the original tweet wished her well and encouraged Sanders to return to Arkansas to pursue her reported ambition to run for governor of the state.
Her predecessor, Sean Spicer and former Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci under whom he served for about ten days got no such chummy treatment when they left.
I don’t recall any goodbyes from Governor Tenorio when I returned to my media business, but I did eventually receive a contract to provide the services I had been providing all along, requiring no personal contact or advice on policy. It made me happy, and I made no enemies among the media folks I continued to deal with in the community. Of course, I never took away anyone’s press pass or serially lied to them.
One function I did provide while in the office was drafting a weekly newspaper column under the governor’s name. I had to guess at policy and the other contents of this ghostly enterprise. Twelve columns in, I heard the governor liked the latest installment. “Who’s writing that anyhow,” he inquired. I took it as a compliment.
Bruce Lloyd is a longtime journalist.