Presidential-press relations have received some rare attention in the media spotlight these past few weeks. It began on President’s Day weekend, when reporters were denied access to cover President Obama’s golf outing at the Floridian National Golf Club. The event prompted frustration and anger from White House correspondents.
“Speaking on behalf of the White House Correspondents Association, 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,” Fox News White House correspondent Ed Henry wrote in a statement. “There is a very simple but important principle we will continue to fight for today and in the days ahead: transparency.”
I had the privilege of spending last weekend researching at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston, Massachusetts. Intent on exploring the evolution of White House communications and message management for my CSPC research paper, the Golf course kerfuffle described above breathed new life into my topic.
POLITICO reporters Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen responded to the President’s Day confrontation by writing a column which took a deep look at the messaging tactics used by the Obama White House. Among the many techniques — both traditional and new — they describe as cornerstones of the Obama team’s media relations strategy, one of the most pronounced and surprising “is the iron-fisted control of access to White House information and officials.”
“Top officials recently discouraged Cabinet secretaries from talking about sequestration,” VandeHei and Allen report. “And even top officials privately gripe about the muzzle put on them by the White House.”
I began my research at the Kennedy Library operating on the assumption that, unlike the current Obama White House, the Kennedy administration exerted little control over its message. A decade before the Vietnam War and Watergate led to a permanently adversarial press, the American public was enamored with their young, charismatic president. And I assumed that as a result, the Kennedy Press Office was thinking little about media grand strategy.
But this thinking was quickly uprooted when I found an interesting memo in the files of White House Press Secretary Pierre Salinger proposing greater control over presidential spokesmen. In a memo dated February, 3, 1961, Special Assistant to the President Frederick G. Dutton argued for the creation of a “Speakers Kit.” The Speakers Kit would include the President’s notable quotes, economic data, and a summary of administration accomplishments to be used by spokesmen when making speeches and remarks in support of the President.
“The whole packet should be compact enough to be carried in an inside coat pocket and for quick inserts or additions in any speech that a Cabinet member or other person might be making, formally or informally,” Dutton wrote, emphasizing that “it should be useful not only for its contents but as a physical reminder that the diverse spokesmen of this Administration and the Democratic Party throughout the nation should be speaking out in support of the President’s pending programs!”
While Dutton’s Speakers Kit sought to shape the messaging and talking points of President Kennedy’s Cabinet members and spokesmen, the effort was premised on the idea that that administration needed its spokesmen in public and in the media actively garnering support for the President and his programs.
As President Obama works to sell his second term agenda to the American public in the face of an increasingly adversarial press — with whom he has done little to cultivate a positive relationship — he would benefit from taking a page out of President Kennedy’s Speakers Kit.
Even though President Obama is communicating in a different environment than the Technicolor television days of the early 1960s, the fracturing of today’s media landscape means that more appointees, cabinet secretaries, and government officials will be speaking on his behalf. They should be empowered, not restricted.