Over at the AssociationsNow blog, Ernie Smith wrote a story about the White House Correspondents Association(WHCA) complaining about “transparency” and lack of access during the President’s recent golf vacation. Ed Henry, the president of WHCA issued a protest statement. “I can say a broad cross-section of our members from print, radio, online, and TV have today expressed extreme frustration to me about having absolutely no access to the president of the United States this entire weekend. There is a very simple but important principle we will continue to fight for today and in the days ahead: transparency.”
While “leadership transparency” is a worthy goal, it struck me as counterproductive to pick a public fight with the Press Secretary to the President of the United States. It was made doubly awkward that Henry, who previously worked for CNN and C-SPAN currently works for the highly partisan Fox News Channel. The White House Press Office fired back with a series of statements about the regular access the press enjoys with the President. This all got me to thinking. When it comes to staking out a public position, or pursuing an agenda for change what leadership lessons can be found here?
1. Pick the right spokesperson. When your organization stakes out a controversial position, be sure your spokesperson is not perceived as conflicted. Pick your spokesperson carefully be sure they are credible and especially well informed.
2. Have your facts at the ready. While the White House Correspondents Association was quick to complain about access to the President, they offered no hard data to support their position. The White House says the President has done 591 interviews, 104 with major news outlets. On average, that’s almost two interviews a week with reporters and one interview with major news outlet every two weeks since the President was elected in 2009.
3. Stick to the story. White House Correspondents Association President Ed Henry says it’s all about “transparency”. He then goes on to say, “We’re not interested in the violating the president’s privacy. He’s entitled to vacations like everyone else.” So which is it? Transparency, access, the right to the President to take vacations or not wanting to violate the President’s right to privacy? Keeping the WHCA’s message about what exactly they mean by “transparency” both clear and concise would have helped immensely.
4. Manage your member/customer/client and team’s expectations. See #2 above. While people may feel “extremely frustrated”, it’s equally important feelings alone don’t drive your organization’s public relations or policy agenda. Life is unfair, frustrating and occasionally boring. Is that really the basis for a public spat on transparency?
We understand White House Correspondents would probably prefer to die of exhaustion than boredom in their line of work. Sitting around the Holiday Inn while the President of the United States vacations at the Floridian Golf Resort probably seems unfair to many reporters accustomed to regular access. That said, allowing the President of the United States enjoy a few days vacation with friends hardly seems reason to launch a public relations outcry that ends up making your organization appear petty and ill-informed.