5 PR Tips from The West Wing

As September slipped into October, the leaves changed, calendar pages fluttered and in Toronto, the weather improved a touch! However, my twitter followers and friends seem to be asking the same question, “Has PR school made Danielle a crazy recluse? All she seems to do is schoolwork and watch West Wing.” To that I would add, I’m also working in the evenings and playing Sims Social, but that is neither here nor there.

But in all seriousness, this does seem to be the extent of my social life, at least for the rest of the school year. I make the occasional cinematic outing but have seemingly backed away from the requisite fall releases and retrospective screenings to hang at home and seemingly finish more work. (Which somehow ends with me spending hours reading news sites.)

But when I’m not staring at the internet, I’m hooked on The West Wing. “But Danielle, why the West Wing? Why not just watch the same episodes of Community until your dvds fall apart?” you may ask. Well, the show itself is almost more about PR than it is about politics and throughout ONE SEASON it has reinforced much of what I’ve learned in class and provided me with all types of examples (albeit, fictional) of some risks and issues I’ll be forced to reckon with in a mere year from now. Let’s just hope I remember these lessons and not just CJ’s steamy chemistry with Danny.

I’ve almost completed season 1, that’s 22 episodes in just under 25 days. That is quite a bit of tv, but if I use this as yet another research method, I can stare at young(er) Rob Lowe, take down some mental notes and have fun while I do it, what do I have to lose?

Here are 5 things I learned about PR, good or bad, from The West Wing Season 1.

  1. Once it’s Out There, it’s Out There!

    Pilot episode and the White House is already in scalding hot water, Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman stuck his foot in his mouth on LIVE TELEVISION while being antagonized by a Christian activist. After taking quite a few personal hits, he gives the media what they want by dishing out a barb of his own, and the fallout is tremendous. A television clip is played through all the news cycles and Josh is schooled and lectured about his public manner which, unfortunately, won’t improve any time soon. Lesson learned: Take the high road and don’t feed the trolls.

  2. There is no ‘Off the Record’.
    I can’t number enough of the scenes in which this phrase is uttered. My favourite would be from Take Out the Trash Day. A distraught CJ (White House Press Secretary) has been hit by an order from the Communications department that she can’t abide. A story about gay rights and a hate crime bill is being squashed and it’s her opinion that it’d be the right thing to do to leak it. She attempts to reveal key information to a reporter who quickly talks her down, letting her know that anything she leaks now could cost either of them their job or their friendship. I couldn’t find a video but it’s a great scene. Lesson learned: Being ‘Off the record’ can hurt BOTH sides of the equation, so don’t trust it.

  3. Always Respect Your Press Secretary!

    In Celestial Navigation, a typical day at the White House is dissected by the Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman for a captive audience of University students. Once again, he stuck his foot in his mouth, but this time it was entirely his own fault. When CJ becomes unable to do a press briefing due to an unscheduled root canal, Josh takes it upon himself to take over the press briefing, wholly unprepared and with a bossy, cocky and insulting attitude. Needless to say all hell breaks loose. Lesson learned: A press secretary/media relations staffer is TRAINED to deal with the media, whether it be their personal beats, their sense of humour or their attitudes. Do not disrespect the media and do not overstep your bounds into the carefully constructed environment that is the press room!

  4. Do NOT Withhold Information From Your Press Secretary!
  5. In the Lord John Marbury episode, a potentially deadly invasion is underway between India and a Pakistani-held territory and all the senior staffers, except the Press Secretary CJ are in on the briefing. When she pops her head by the office to see what the meeting is about, they wave her off and tell her she’ll know in the morning, without releasing any details and advising her to close off the press for the day. Of course, she gets ‘The question’ about the event, an event she knows nothing about and she answers that ‘She was just in the Oval Office’ and that the claim was a joke. The next day the tables are turned and she looks like a fool to the press, when in actuality it was White House staffers who failed to release the information. Lesson learned: Your media relations officers are your eyes and ears and, more often than not, your mouth. Keep them alert and informed.

  6. If in Doubt, Ask.
  7. A confused press secretary is a bad press secretary, CJ has to swallow her pride and get some extra information from a colleague to assist in her briefings, to ensure she doesn’t look like a fool when questions are thrown at her. While it was a topic she should have already some knowledge about, it was of a necessity to confirm her understanding. While it was embarrassing at first, it caused less humiliation later. Lesson learned: it never hurts to ask, it’s better to be chided by a co-worker than by a member of the press, they hold no prisoners.

I gleaned all these myself, but found a few other people who have thought of this before me. Petroianii has a great youtube page with clips that are specifically geared to key PR questions.

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