“What Happened?”

When Eduflack first started off on Capitol Hill, I was fortunate enough to have a mentor who invested the time in teaching me the finer points of being an “on-the-record” spokesman.  I was working for Sen. Robert C. Byrd (WV) at the time, 22 years old and incredibly wet behind the ears.  Byrd’s spokesperson on the Senate Appropriations Committee, Marsha Berry, took me under her wing.  She walked me through the Senate Press Gallery, introducing me to the gaggle of reporters.  She gave me a great deal of advice and coaching.

One piece of advice she left me was a simple one that I have followed every since.  “Never, ever lie,” Marsha said.  Lie to a reporter once, and you’ve lost his trust.  Lose his trust, and you can’t do the job.

She was absolutely right, and I have done my best to ensure that I always told reporters the truth.  I went on to serve as spokesman for other senators and congressmen.  I did it for government panels and government agencies.  For non-profits and corporations.  I even did it on the campaign trail.  And while I’d sometimes joke about plausible deniability (usually around questions of campaign fundraising), my goal was always to provide needed information to reporters.  Sure, I’d spin it in a favorable way.  But the information was always accurate (or as accurate as it could be), and I trusted what I said.

I have always known I was fortunate when it came to who I worked for.  Be it Byrd, Senator Bill Bradley (NJ), or Congressman John Olver (MA), I worked for honorable men who I trusted and who I was proud to work for.  Yes, I regularly jousted with them on particular policy issues, asking if voting against X policy was good for the upcoming campaign, but I knew I worked for good men who were ultimately doing what they knew was best.  And I thought that’s what most spokespeople did.  Particularly if you worked for the President of the United States.

By now, most of us have heard of Scott McClennan’s new memoir, “What Happened.”  The former Bush press secretary takes a very aggressive stance against his former boss.  And, essentially, McClennan says he regularly stood up behind the podium and lied to reporters on a host of issues.  Of course, it was his higher-ups’ fault that he lied.  He just followed orders.

Eduflack just can’t buy that.  Sure, I have never walked in McClennan’s shoes.  I’ve only done the job on Capitol Hill.  But I’ve done it long enough to know that a good press secretary (or communications director, whatever your preferred title may be) takes the time to look under the hood and understand the issues.  He moves beyond the talking points to learn.  He asks questions.  He anticipates even more questions.  And he is prepared to deal with any issue that is thrown his way.  He becomes an expert on all issues, and rarely takes any one person’s word on a controversial topic.

Saying you lied and just followed orders is a cop out.  It’s lazy work, and it is one of the reasons folks think PR is so easy.  A good spokesman knows all the facts.  He relays those facts as effectively as possible.  He speaks truth, even under tough circumstances.  He truly sees himself as an extension of his boss, sharing information to as broad an audience as possible.

I know, I know, what does all of this have to do with education reform?  A great deal, actually.  When educators are selling their education reforms, be it to the media or the community, they need to be trustworthy.  They can’t stretch the data or make guesses about impact.  They need to know the facts, and stick to them.  And they can never, ever lie.  If you do, your reform is history.  No educator, no policymaker, no reporter will take you seriously if you are caught telling an untruth about efficacy or impact.

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