Op-Ed: The More Things Change – Timeless Advice for Murphy’s Spokespeople

Jayne O'Connor, Jon Shure | January 22, 2018 | Opinion
One of the first things to pay attention to is which side of the door you're on when major decisions are made

Jayne O'Connor and Jon Shure
With today’s digital communications and instant responses, the experts the new administration assembles to get Gov. Phil Murphy’s message out face different challenges from the days when press secretaries strolled the State House’s “press row” to pitch stories, and newspapers were New Jerseyans’ main source of information.

But even though Twitter has replaced typewriters, some things don’t change. And in that spirit, we pass on a bit of guidance to a new crop of spokespersons.

To start, Murphy’s name was on the ballot, not yours. There will be times when it’s useful to remember that – good and bad times.

Being a spokesperson or communications strategist has ups and downs that travel in sync with the boss’s ups and downs. When the administration is in the clover, don’t give yourself too much of the credit. When times are really tough, well, don’t blame yourself.

In between those highs and lows, being on the inside, where policies are made, and images shaped (or attempted to be), is a dream come true for a certain breed of news/political junkie.

Inside or outside?

One of the first things to pay attention to is which side of the door you’re on when major decisions are made. You want to be inside, giving your input on how aspects of what’s being considered will play in the media. Not because you want to talk your boss out of things that are worthy but unpopular, but because if you’re outside the door, waiting to be told what to sell, you’ve been denied the chance to give good advice.

Speaking of advice, never forget that while you will hear from many voices inside and outside the administration, you have only one client. It can be tempting at times to over-represent the media to the governor or the cabinet member you work for, or to avoid being the bearer of bad news to the boss. If something isn’t working, he needs to know. If he or she hears it from someone else, they might wonder why you didn’t speak up – or, worse, why you’re there at all.

Even journalists know they aren’t as important today as they once were. The temptation will be to bypass them altogether. Still, don’t let your boss go out of his way to make enemies in the press. You never know when getting a close call in his favor will make a difference.

Remember, too, that you’re now also a public servant, with a responsibility to be honest and forthcoming about the actions of state government – all of them. You’ll soon see it’s not easy being the official spokesperson for the work of the state’s nearly 60,000 executive branch employees – most of whom your administration didn’t hire and who will be there after you’re gone. Your ability to do your job well depends on your credibility, so do all you can to maintain it.

You will soon learn something your predecessors found out: getting the governor’s story out was much easier in the campaign than it will be in office. At first, that sounds counterintuitive. New Jersey’s governor is arguably the most powerful in the nation. And in a state with less TV coverage than most, and no other executive branch officials elected other than the lieutenant governor, it doesn’t seem as if anyone has a megaphone as loud as the governor’s. That can be deceiving. When you’re having trouble getting legislation passed or taking a hit in the opinion polls you will discover that some seemingly insignificant characters are getting a lot of coverage – and you’ll wish you had those millions of dollars to spend on TV ads like you did in the campaign.

While you’re lamenting the unfairness of it all, keep reminding the policymakers you report to that the most likely winner of any policy debate is the person who gets there first with a convincing narrative of what the debate is about. The narrative is precious and all too easy to lose – either by allowing distractions or falling prey to aggressive, clever opponents. Keep him on his toes. Ultimately, the public is the audience. Everything has to be explained in terms understood by people who lie awake at night worrying about their family’s economic security, not how the state will balance its budget. Keep it relevant.

One last thing, that underlies everything else. Tell truth to power. If you’re working for a politician who just wants to hear that he or she is right, you should quit. The good ones want the benefit of smart, honest people giving the best possible advice. Your job will be hard enough without making it harder.