Hey Mooch, How About A Little More West Wing’s Toby and a Little Less Lord of the Flies’ Piggy?
An effective communications director is the angel on the shoulder of the boss, pushing when appropriate, but being protective, strategic, and mindful of how every work and every action can be construed or misconstrued. It’s a role of guardian, Sherpa, and sage, with a little football coach mixed in for good measure.
That effective communications director has to be all about facilitating the story, making sure the boss’ views and positions are clear and understood. It can mean raising the heat, or it can mean de-escalating a situation. But its about advocating for the person in the big chair.
When that story evolves into one about the communications director him or herself, the battle is lost. The director has failed, in many different ways.
So when we see the media coverage of new White House Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci and his recent rants to the New Yorker, one has to wonder if Scaramucci knows what the role of communications director is all about. Granted, he has never held a communications position in his professional life, save for guest spots on Fox. But one would have to think he had a sense of the job he was assuming when he agreed to helm the White House Communications Office.
To put it in West Wing speak, Scaramucci accepted the position of Toby. But he clearly wants to do C.J.’s job. And in wanting to be the public voice, and wanting to be the news, he has quickly become the devil on the other shoulder, encouraging his boss’ negative traits and enflaming distrust and fear.
We’ve devolved from President Bartlet and the West Wing to Piggy and Lord of the Flies.
When I first started out in political communications, I was running a communications shop for a Democratic congressman from Massachusetts. John Olver was a chemist by trade, with an MIT doctorate behind it. Olver was a scientist and a wonk, not one who spoke in soundbites. So much so that for his 1996 re-election campaign, perhaps the toughest race of his political career, we adopted a “he’s a workhorse, not a show horse” slogan. It played to his strengths and called out his shortcomings in a positive way.
As Olver’s spokeman, I spent a great deal of time with the media, both during the campaign and after. While Olver spoke in long, complex sentences, I could only utter short, pithy soundbites. In fact, one veteran political reporter once joked to me that Olver did speak in soundbites, you just had to recognize that the bite was the sixth clause in the nine-clause sentence.
But John Olver was a policy warrior. I may not have agreed with all of his stances, but I respected them all and publicly defended them. And I advocated for them in my soundbite way, making sure every newspaper and radio station that covered all 105 cities and towns in our district heard it.
A funny thing happened along the way, though. In my zeal to defend my boss and make sure his voice was heard, I developed my own voice. It was far easier for the media to talk to me than it was for them to dissect the congressman’s prose. So I became the regular quote. So much so that the running joke in political circles was that Congressman John Olver had legally changed his name to Olver spokesman Patrick Riccards.
It was then that I realized I was not being as effective a communications director as I needed to be. If there was buzz about my public profile, then I wasn’t doing my job ensuring our positions on healthcare, education, workforce development, and transportation were being heard. Instead of being the angel on his shoulder, I was contributing to the noise that surrounds any politician. I was making his job as an elected official harder, not easier. And I wasn’t even psycho-analyzing my new colleagues or accusing them of seeking self gratification in convos with the media.
This was an incredibly important lesson for me to learn as I then moved on from that role, and one that has served me well throughout my career as a communications executive. Ultimately, my role is to be one of megaphone, to amplify the words of my boss, my organization, or my cause. When I do that, we succeed. When it becomes about me, we fail.
Hopefully, that is a lesson that Scaramucci will soon learn. It may be fun to see your name in the headlines or on all of the news programs during a given news cycle, but is it worth it? Is it worth it when your boss loses the biggest policy vote in his relatively new political career? It is worth it when you make it nearly impossible to work with many of your colleagues? Is it worth it when you are seen as just another blow-dried empty suit, with no substance or moral compass behind you?
The answers to those questions are crystal clear to this political communications pro. And I’d like to think they are equally easy for all those I’ve worked with over the years, regardless of political party or level of government.
(This piece originally appeared on LinkedIn Pulse.)