News conferences have become difficult to watch lately. We call them “news,” not “press,” conferences because of the dwindling number of physically printed news outlets.
The problem has been the lack of actual news content being presented by President Obama’s spokespeople, including Press Secretary Jay Carney and Attorney General Eric Holder.
In teaching bright-eyed PR students how to do news conferences, I always provided two bits of advice. Never say “no comment” because you always look like you’re hiding something. The other priceless piece of advice was to not call a news conference unless you had information you needed to get out to all media.
Now, Carney has no choice but to do a daily briefing for the White House press corps. However, if you’re going to be an hour late for your own briefing, at least have something to say. It was like watching a boat sink to see Carney continually say that he didn’t know anything about the IRS extra scrutiny of Tea Party tax exemption applications other than what he got from media reports. Will Rogers could get away with saying “I only know what I read in the papers.” Jay, you’re no Will Rogers.
The veil of ignorance also extended to the Department of Justice seizing the telephone records (office, cell, and home) for enough AP reporters to fill a Major League Baseball roster. I wrote for the AP (and UPI when it existed) from time to time and I know how I would have felt about this back in the day. Violated would be too weak a word.
From the lectern, Carney said he had no information and would have to refer the now-inquisitive White House reporters over to the Department of Justice. Meanwhile, over at the Department of Justice, AG Holder was saying that, since he recused himself from the investigation, he really didn’t know the details.
If nether of you know anything, why are you standing there?
My game plan for news conferences was that I already had a good idea of which questions were likely to be asked (even the ones I feared most) and I already had my answers, with facts and figures, in my binder. Here’s a fun fact: this “out of the way IRS office in Cincinnati” wasn’t some rogue outfit in flyover country. It is THE office that processes the tax-exempt organization applications. Therefore, those folks had total gatekeeper power.
Here’s the deeper question. In management, there is a concept called “putative knowledge,” meaning that it is something managers should know by virtue of their responsibilities, regardless of whether they actually know it. For example, when I was teaching government managers about sexual harassment policy, I told them that they can’t plead ignorance of any funny business in the office. It is part of their job to know what goes on.
Therefore, the scandals of the day always belong to the boss. No matter if it’s Benghazi, the IRS case or the AP phone case, they belong to the Secretary of State, the Secretary of the Treasury, and the Attorney General, respectively, and they all report to the same guy.
President Truman had the sign on his desk “The Buck Stops Here.” Whatever happened, including the first use of atomic weapons, he owned it.
The Cabinet cannot continue to keep controversy at arm’s reach by pleading ignorance to keep the President in an information vacuum to give him plausible deniability. Eventually, the facts will slip through.
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Dr. Ron Thomas, Jr.
Dr. Ron Thomas, Jr. teaches journalism and public relations in the graduate program at Full Sail University in Orlando, FL. He also heads Thomas Consulting Group, a consortium of experts in crisis management, media relations and leadership development.