Patricia Turgeon…Press Secretary and Assistant Communications Director
I have been watching the relationship between Sean Spicer and the press with interest. As a former press secretary to a high profile elected official, who was a polarizing political figure, I can clearly state that being a press secretary is a tough job.
I rarely talk about anything that I did while employed by either Republicans or Democrats at the Minnesota State Capitol. While watching Sean Spicer’s press briefing regarding the false report of the removal of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King bust from the oval office and the dispute regarding inauguration crowd numbers, I caught myself literally shaking my head. Boy, did that bring back memories.
I worked in communication for the Minnesota Office of the Secretary of State during the Coleman-Franken and Emmer-Dayton recounts. I was there for the marriage amendments and several election cycles. I was the lone republican on the communication’s team in a democrat office.
Secretary of State Mark Ritchie (Democrat) best described my role and gave me one of the nicest compliments of my life all at the same time. He and I are both avid readers of history–especially Civil War history. One day he heard about a Civil War tour of the Capitol and enthusiastically invited me to go with him. Through the tunnels we raced.
The tour guide explained that during the Civil War a person had to be a certain height to enter military service. Sadly, I bemoaned that I couldn’t have served, because I was too short. Secretary Ritchie’s eyes just danced as he smiled at me from ear to ear and exclaimed, “Oh, Pat, they’d have taken you…you’re a fighter!”
I definitely presented my view on a variety of issues while working in that office. When asked for input, I can only remember losing an argument regarding press relations once. That incident did not involve the Secretary.
A reporter had called me to ask for information. He had been following an issue and it was his story. I told him that the information he was seeking was not yet available. At that second, it was a truthful answer. No sooner had I hung up the phone, than my supervisor walked into my office with a press announcement she had drafted regarding that very decision. I vehemently argued that the reporter should be given a call before the press announcement was released. He deserved that and it would be the right thing to do. I was over-ruled and with the supervisor standing over me, I sent out the press release.
Within minutes my phone rang with an very angry reporter yelling at me. His comments were unkind, personal and very terse. During his tirade, I told him several times that he had every right to be upset, but he was too hot to listen. I was trying to tell him, while the supervisor was staring at me, that I agreed with him. The whole time I was being dressed down by the report, the supervisor stood in my office smirking at me. When the phone call ended, the person said that was to bad that I got told off.
When you work for other people, are not in charge and you need that job to put your child through college, sometimes you do what you are told knowing that it is not what you would do. Nobody likes to have their personal ethics compromised to keep a job. When that happens to a press secretary, it can be in front of the whole world.
My work as a press secretary taught me several things:
1. Grow a very thick skin. Let criticism run off of your back like rainwater. Learn to recognize the difference between the war and a fight. Take the long view to win the war and learn to just let somethings go.
2. Stay out front. Remain focused on your strategy and message. Do not get distracted by your opponents darts and arrows. In war and politics victory belongs to those with the best offense. Even the best defense can only end in a siege. .
3. Be smarter than the dog. If a dog bites you once its the dog’s fault, if the dog bites you a second time it is your fault for not being smarter than the dog. Do not do your adversary’s work for them. An example of this would be saying that there are different facts. No, facts are facts. The discussion is about the accurate presentation of fact and the difference between spin (opinion) and fact.
4. If you are going bear hunting don’t bring bird shot, come loaded for bear. When you are going to correct anyone have the quantifiable data with you and present it in a concise, easy to understand, impossible to dispute manner.
5. Keep it positive. I have written well over a hundred press releases and any message can be delivered using positive or negative words. Use positive.
6. Words matter–connotation and denotation.
7. Reporters have a job to do. By its very nature the relationship between a press secretary and the press is going to be adversarial. Create good working relationships, be accessible and whenever possible help them.
8. Excellence is its own reward. It is hard to make an argument against excellence.
I have never spoken to that reporter about his call. Nor to anyone else about it. I let it go. I did and still do wish that he would have calmed down that day and heard what I was saying to him. That, I fought for you, I lost, you had every right to be angry and I am sorry that you were treated that way. That person was and still is a great reporter…just saying.