“No-one wanted to see me in their meeting.”
The admission from Eric Schultz is part self-deprecating, part revelatory. Until recently, he served as principal deputy press secretary in the Obama White House. His tour of duty lasted six years – longer than average – and is a testament not only to his ability to convey the administration’s message clearly and concisely but also to the strength of his relationships – with White House colleagues and press corps alike. So, why did no one want to see him in their meetings?
“The reason I always got bad looks when I entered a room was that one of my responsibilities at the White House was to deal with crisis communications,” he explains. “So if I was there, something bad was likely going down. But while the bad looks were not good for my self-esteem, the flip side was that I got to work alongside talented and phenomenal people who would not only take on the most daunting of challenges but do so in a way that was selfless and results-driven. This portfolio was definitely the most challenging I had at the White House but also the most rewarding.”
All talk, all action
A native of Syracuse in upstate New York, Schultz kicked off his political career after his freshman year at college, working as an intern in the local office of Senator Chuck Schumer. His internship the following summer was with the senatorial campaign of the then first lady, Hillary Clinton – the primary responsibility being to track every public move of Clinton’s opponent for the senate seat, Rick Lazio, by recording it all on videotape.
After graduation he migrated to Washington, DC for a job on Capitol Hill, taking time out to work in the presidential election campaigns of John Kerry in 2004 and John Edwards in 2008, roles that preceded his stint heading up communications on the successful senate campaign of Al Franken. His last job before joining President Obama’s White House team in April 2011 was as communications director to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
At the White House he had many responsibilities, but his focus on crisis communications saw him lead the response to an often hostile Republican Congress on issues such as “Fast and Furious”, a botched federal gun-tracking investigation; the bankruptcy of solar energy company, Solyndra; and extravagant conference spending by the General Services Administration. He is keen to stress that, regardless of each instance, there are some golden rules to follow – starting with taking a deep breath and not rushing blindly into the fray.
“For me, whenever one of these crises occurred, I wanted to be the adult in the room,” he says. “We learned that you cannot get swept away in the hysteria of the moment.” He goes on to say, however, that this is easier said than done.
“You will have members of congress, the press corps and your own team who haven’t seen anything like this before and/or think it would be to their advantage to spin everyone up. Our view was we had to take the necessary amount of time and altitude to figure out what the North Star would be. We tried to make sure we never contradicted ourselves, because credibility is paramount – the moment you say something that turns out to be untrue, you’ve yielded a huge platform and a level of trust that is very difficult to gain back. It’s hard because you might have to eat a few news cycles of the hysteria and of members of Congress threatening to hold you in contempt. But our view was to play the long game and gather as many facts as we can in order to figure out where our four corners were.”
A transformed media environment
Barack Obama’s presidency coincided with the rise of social media, with Twitter in particular having a transformative impact on journalism and the spin cycle. Today, it is often the first port of call for news and nuance – a priceless source of information which journalists, government workers and citizens can all visit for the very latest updates.
Twitter’s dominance, however, runs somewhat contrary to more traditional styles of working. In my own experience in government, when an announcement was coming there was a particular set of standard activities you would undertake in advance of rolling something out. Often, this would be a combination of a press release and frequently asked questions, which would be sent out under embargo to the press, as well as outreach to members of Congress and their staff.
This process sounds robust but can also seem very old school – particularly in today’s world of social media and the lightning pace with which information travels. Asked whether this process still works, Schultz says that he doesn’t have all the answers. “I wish I had the secret sauce,” he admits.
“I worked in the White House for six years – the longest job I’ve ever had – and we experimented with this a lot. We don’t pretend to have the monopoly on wisdom of rolling out some sort of announcement or project or decision. We tried to be creative, we tried to rely on the old systems that worked, but we also knew we lived in a new media environment, one entirely different to even the one that faced the last administration. For example, one billion people around the world check Facebook on their phones every day. In 2012, when the president was re-elected, there weren’t even one billion smartphones in circulation.”
He believes that any communications professional – in government or elsewhere – needs to recognise that old news streams are gone forever. “It is important to recognise where people are getting their news from,” he points out. “We used to live in a world where most people would just turn on the network news and one of three white men would be telling them what had happened that day. This doesn’t happen anymore.”
Navigating this rapidly evolving environment requires a variety of playbooks and tools, it transpires. “One would be an embargo, where we work through the issue with a reporter and load them up with as much context and background as possible,” he explains. “This would be someone who we believed could tell the story out of the gate that reflects the president’s thinking and his argument. This initial conversation with a smart reporter who is already plugged into the issue would be a good canary in the mineshaft to tell us how this was going to go.”
But in other circumstances, working with just one reporter would not be effective. “Where an issue is too broad, too interesting and too hot, we would need to brief hundreds of reporters at one time,” he says. “Sometimes the element of surprise can work to your advantage, and sometimes it would be the element of timing. We talk about the ‘Friday news dump’ and there is some value in that. So there is no one playbook that fits every situation.”
Time to team
Another interesting component of government communications is the impact of those communications on the people who work in government themselves – not the political appointees but the career public servants – and ensuring their support and input was also a vital priority.
“This was something we had to manage for eight years,” says Schultz. “The approach of our White House was to get buy-in from as many stakeholders as possible. We wanted to make sure the policymakers were comfortable, our liaisons to staff on Capitol Hill were comfortable, as were the lawyers and the folks who dealt with outside groups. Our view was that it would be a better product if the process was cleaner – but this brings risks of leaks, and so to guard against that we tried to be as careful and meticulous as possible. Sometimes we were accused of being insular and not engaging the agencies, but I think for the most part we drew the right balance.”
Schultz, who has since opened his own public affairs firm and continues to advise former President Obama in his post-presidency, concludes with two pieces of advice for government communicators: be honest and build relationships.
“Every administration is going to have good and bad days, but I do think there has to be a foundational level of trust in order for the White House to do its job,” he says. “I faced a ferociously sceptical press corps at all times – that’s their job – but there was a basic level of trust because they knew I was being straight with them. Once you violate that trust, it gets much harder to do your job. And email and Twitter are great, but you should have as many actual conversations with people as possible – actually get to know them and what makes them tick.”
Wise words – and an approach that will no doubt continue to serve him well as he navigates any communications challenges that lie over the horizon.
Eric Schultz was speaking to Danny Werfel and Dan Tangherlini on a recent edition of the Gov Actually podcast. Check out the full conversation here and subscribe to Gov Actually on iTunes
- From Washington to The West Wing. Eli Attie tells us about life as Vice President Gore’s chief speechwriter, his subsequent role on The West Wing and the secrets of effective political communication
- Googling better government. After helping rescue healthcare.gov, Mikey Dickerson is now focusing on the US federal government’s wider deployment of digital technology. He takes time out to tell Danny Werfel why it’s no more business as usual
- To the Max. Helping US policymakers to be more effective is the task facing Max Stier and his colleagues at the Partnership for Public Service. He tells us about transforming federal government inspiring a new generation
- Winds of change. Few understand the mechanics of US elections better than Matthew Dowd. A veteran of both sides of the campaign trail, he tells us about his experiences and why change is coming to America…
- Beltway and beyond. A former senior advisor to two US presidents, Elliott Abrams’ view on public impact has been shaped by decades of public service. He shares his perspective on how governments can achieve more
- DC despatch. Kate Josephs reflects on her experiences driving performance improvement in the British and US governments
- By the people, for the people. Colorado’s voters certainly like John Hickenlooper. Recently re-elected as governor and enjoying strong approval ratings, the former mayor of Denver tells us about his approach to policymaking and why he believes collaboration is key to success