Don’t let her small stature and entertaining stories fool you — Dana Perino means business. As the first woman in the Republican Party to serve as a White House Press Secretary, Perino has left her mark on the highest communication office in the country (and my dream job). In a lecture to an auditorium packed with aspiring Olivia Popes and Dana Perinos at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Perino shared some of her memories from the White House, explaining how a small-town girl from Wyoming landed the most coveted job in public affairs.
1. Keep your eyes and ears open.
Before she became President George W. Bush’s press secretary (read: queen of public communication), Perino was a curious little girl who read the newspaper everyday so she could discuss the day’s headlines with her dad. Looking back, she credits her professional success and her rise to the office of press secretary with her understanding of public policy. It’s not enough for public relations students to know how to write and speak well; they must also know the issues they’re expected to write and speak about. This understanding doesn’t come over night, but rather as a result of a conscious decision to follow the news, take an active role in politics, and ask important questions. As Perino would say, “Eyes and ears open at all times.”
2. Always apply for the job.
There’s an unspoken belief in the professional world that you have to work your way up the ladder, paying dues at each rung until you finally reach the top. Surely, that’s how it works, right? Wrong. Perino applied for her first press secretary job just a few years out of college, after realizing that her first path — broadcast journalism — wasn’t a good fit. Although she was concerned she didn’t have enough experience, she got the job … and look where she ended up. Don’t pass on a potential job opportunity because you think it’s too high up for you. Reach for that rung, and it could land you in the White House someday.
3. Always take the deputy position.
When the Bush administration landed in the White House, Perino was the deputy press secretary (a.k.a., the understudy). She worked late nights, long weekends, and most holidays (because when you work for the president, someone has to), but being in that position gave her an opportunity to get to know President Bush better and gain his trust. She even tells the story of President Bush offering her peanut butter and honey sandwiches on Saturday flights in Marine One. When the time came for her to step up as a full-fledged press secretary, she had already developed a working relationship with the president, making it easier for her to transition into a larger role on his communications team.
4. It’s okay to be obsessive-compulsive …
…about preparing. The White House Press Secretary has to lead press briefings and prep the president for his press briefings, which requires answering lots of tough questions from the media. According to Perino, President Bush said he never felt unprepared for a single question thanks to her self-proclaimed obsessive-compulsive preparation. Anticipate anything, prepare for everything, and impress even the commander in chief.
5. Be aware of the background.
When Perino became press secretary, she took the place of a man more than a foot taller than her. Rather than have a new podium built in the press briefing room, she opted to stand on a step so that she would fit the original one. What she didn’t anticipate, though, was blocking the White House seal behind her in such a way that it read “White Ho” on camera. After seeing the tapes, she agreed that a new podium was the way to go. Don’t forget about the background. Otherwise, you might get more than one new title when you get promoted to White House Press Secretary.
6. Popularity (and criticism) are fleeting.
Throughout his presidency, George W. refused to do appearances on late-night comedy shows like The Tonight Show. According to Perino, he didn’t think such appearances were appropriate for the type of president he wanted to be, and he wouldn’t sacrifice his principles for popularity. Certainly, this lesson applies to all professional and personal situations — including my middle school years. But from a public relations perspective, it is important to remember that clients and their spokespersons should not be willing to change their values in order to pursue popularity or avoid criticism. Whether they’re faced with praise or critique, they should respond to it briefly, then move on.
7. Loyalty goes both ways.
In government and the private sector, public relations professionals must remain loyal to the clients they represent. In turn, clients must remain loyal to the spokespersons they choose to represent them. Perino says that she and President Bush developed this sense of mutual loyalty over time because they trusted each other and believed in each other. She’s even been known to take professional advice from the president since leaving the White House. Stay loyal, and you could end up getting pep talks from the president.
She’s traveled with the president, she’s answered tough questions from the media, and now she’s imparted her wisdom on to the next generation of professional communicators. And if you’re wondering what one could possibly do after serving as White House Press Secretary — Dana Perino now hosts “The Five” on FOX News. Now, please excuse me while I go daydream about having a career like this.