Crisis Communication Lessons From Jen Psaki’s Successful Tenure As White House Press Secretary

President Joe Biden announced today that Jen Psaki will step down from her role as White House press secretary on May 13 and will be replaced by Karine Jean-Pierre, the current principal deputy press secretary.

Biden said in a statement that Psaki “has set the standard for returning decency, respect and decorum to the White House Briefing Room. I want to say thank you to Jen for raising the bar, communicating directly and truthfully to the American people, and keeping her sense of humor while doing so. I thank Jen for her service to the country, and wish her the very best as she moves forward.”

Jean-Pierre will become the first openly gay person and first Black woman to hold the role of White House press secretary, The Hill reported.

Patience And Grace

Mike McCurry is a former State Department spokesperson and press secretary to President Bill Clinton. He said Psaki “handled the chores of daily briefings superbly and that was important since the daily press briefing was an endangered species.” Being accountable, taking tough questions, even the ridiculous ones, requires some patience and grace.

“And she did that and probably passed some ethic of respect for the press to her capable successor…”, McCurry thought,

Overcoming A Bad Precedent

Cheryl Dixon is an adjunct professor of strategic communication at Columbia University, a communication strategy consultant and a former marketing and brand executive. She pointed out that Psaki, “took over a tenuous and adversarial relationship between the White House and the press where insults, lack of objectivity and personal agendas were the norm.

“Overcoming this kind of precedent is not an easy task for any communicator. She started her job with a distrusting and browbeaten audience, and needed to earn credibility while setting a new tone for how they would work and communicate together. Jen was inclusive and called on reporters with an adversarial history—not dodging the questions that were likely to be challenging,” she noted.

Dixon noted that Psaki was “consistently calm and professional in her tone and delivery. Even when she pushed back against a reporter or delivered an edgy rebuttal, she did so with in an even tone that prevented an exchange from escalating. She displayed humor and warmth when appropriate but stayed on course,” Dixon observed.

A Continuing Education For Business Leaders

The White House briefings conducted by Jen Psaki, press secretary provided important lessons about communicating in a crisis. Her televised meetings with reporters immediately became a continuing education class for business leaders on how to communicate clearly and effectively with the media and the public during a crisis—or any other time.

Consistency

Stacy Rosenberg is an associate teaching professor at Carnegie Mellon University’s Heinz College. She said that “One of Psaki’s greatest strengths was consistency.

“Unlike the previous administration that set the record for the longest time without an official White House press briefing, Psaki maintained visibility through regular briefings. This created a sense of transparency. Business leaders who are accessible either directly or via their media relations team can similarly show a commitment to open communication,” he observed.

Professionalism

Rosenberg pointed out that “Psaki is also credited with professionalism. She treated every journalist, regardless of political affiliation, with respect. She was not thrown by a challenging question. Crisis communicators can model Psaki’s command of the room by pivoting from an heated question to a key talking point to remain on message.

Smart And Informed

Debra Caruso Marrone is a media strategist and president and owner of DJC Communications. She thought that “Jen Psaki has been good, but not necessarily, one of the great press secretaries. She is smart, informed on the issues and well-spoken. She doesn’t equivocate like past press secretaries who hemmed and hawed with tough questions.

“But she does lack the humor and quick wit of the best of her predecessors like Mike McCurry (Clinton), Josh Earnest (Obama) Robert Gibbs (Obama) and Joe Lockhart (Clinton),” Marrone commented.

“Psaki hasn’t been tested with scandals and impeachments as some of her forerunners have, but she does show signs of being able to remain cool under pressure. She also hasn’t been in the role as long. Most press secretaries remain at their post for at least two years.

“One of the most important aspects of the job can only be graded by working reporters who deal with the press secretary’s office on a daily basis. Only they know how responsive and quick the office is with questions asked outside the televised daily briefing. That indicator is as important, or perhaps more so, than the public display,” Marrone concluded.

Respect

Zach Friend is a national public policy, political campaigns and communications expert. He said Psaki “found a way to successfully navigate a political world that awards siloes and fierce partisanship with a calm, measured, factual approach.

“One of her greatest successes has been in making the role of White House Press Secretary respected again —even among media outlets that have audiences not supportive of the President’s policies. She has successfully toned down the rhetoric from the podium, ably and sincerely represented the President even against a backdrop of constant national and international crises, all with a command of facts and approach,” he pointed out.

Messaging

Peter Schwartz is an international business consultant with 30 years of experience in marketing, business development, recruiting and crisis communications.

He noted that “As part of the first-ever all-female communications team for the Biden White House, she made sure to structure her answers in a way that would appeal to progressive supporters as well as[ the] middle of the road voters. Some have criticized her lack of effort attracting the support of conservative voters, although there was very little chance of that, to begin with.”

“There are lessons to learn since, in some ways, Psaki represented a return to the more traditional role of a press secretary. And she showed it could be effective. Psaki’s answers were usually long and more detailed than other recent spokespersons,” Schwartz said

“She made a point of not ignoring antagonistic media outlets, like Fox. And she conducted herself in a matter-of-fact, restrained, manner. All of these characteristics can be real assets in crisis communications,” he concluded.

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