As one who has spent many years as a spokesperson for private and public organizations, I’m particularly interested in the briefings given by Sean Spicer, White House press secretary, and Sarah Huckabee Sanders, deputy press secretary. As are millions of non-spokesperson Americans.
When I see Spicer and Sanders lob toward reporters assorted vowels and consonants that often are more smoldering cauldrons of hot oil than credible answers, I often ask why one or both of them is not told, “You’re fired.” Then I wonder why one or both don’t resign. (Now it appears Spicer may be taking on a new role.) I ask the same about other White House appointees, but since I’ve been a spokesperson I’m restricting this commentary to these two, who usually look as miserable to be behind the briefing room’s storied podium as many of the journalists crouched near the podium.
I’m interested in Spicer and Sanders for a number of reasons, including their apparent suffering and the idea that they seem to be completely getting away with treating journalists (including some very highly esteemed specimens) with disdain bordering on hatred. Of course, given the fact that they work for someone who considers the press to be the enemy of the people, I shouldn’t be shocked by their sneers or what seems to be no matter of consequence for their behavior.
But I am shocked by their willingness to dish out such contempt as well as their willingness to be in jobs that neither seems to enjoy. That I don’t get. Even though they work for the president of the United States. Yes, even though they currently work for the president.
When I watch Spicer and Sanders toss hot oil, I sometimes think about some of the more difficult situations I’ve been in during my spokesperson career and whether I always did the right thing to try to maintain my reputation and integrity.
For some years I was a spokesperson for the University of Minnesota medical center. Most of the time, the job was enjoyable (even though I saw death more than a fairly young person trained in journalism should) and immensely educational. But when mighty scandal plagued a number of faculty members in the mid-1990s, local, regional and national news organizations dug with understandable ferocity into the scandals. There were pre-scandal times when I thought I had it rough when journalists complained to my superiors about my not allowing them unfettered access to doctors and patients. Those times were open-bar cocktail parties compared to trying to obtain information from some internal sources who did not want to tell me much of anything about anything, and then provide what information I was able to wrest to some reporters (only a few, but enough) who considered me the enemy of the people simply because of my job duties. When events were approaching their darkest depths, one former professor and one journalist told me that, for as much as I still respected the vast majority of the center and its people, as well as the reporters I worked with, if I didn’t get out soon, I just might need a lawyer — and that employment anywhere else depended upon getting out. So, I left. Years later, I had another job where I worried about my reputation being unnecessarily sullied and I quit much sooner than I might have had I been in the position years earlier.
When I felt the worst as a spokesperson, I often thought about Gerald Ford’s first press secretary, Jerald terHorst. The respected terHorst is best known for resigning only one month into the job, as a protest of Ford’s pardon of Richard Nixon. I think of terHorst quite a bit when I watch Spicer and Sanders, especially when I consider that he quit not only because of the pardon, but because he was one of the last of Ford’s staff to learn about it. In his resignation letter, terHorst wrote that “I do not know how I could credibly defend that action in the absence of a like decision to grant absolute pardon to the young men who evaded Vietnam military service as a matter of conscience and the absence of pardons for former aides and associates of Mr. Nixon. …” To me, and to most spokespersons, the key word there is credible. Spokespersons, even if they work for the president of the United States, must retain credibility. They must. Otherwise they may as well jump into hot oil.
For the country’s sake and, to a lesser extent perhaps, the sake of the spokesperson profession, I hope Spicer and Sanders think about putting the oil cauldrons in storage and engage in credible, extensive career contemplation. And soon.
Mary Stanik, a writer and public-relations professional, formerly lived in St. Paul. She is the author of the novel “Life Erupted.”
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