Former press secretary Mike McCurry on how to be a good communicator


Mike McCurry served as press secretary under President Clinton. (Public Strategies Washington)
April 2, 2013

In this highly charged political era, characterized by instant communication and frequent miscommunication, the need for federal leaders to be clear and credible is extremely important for effective governance. Michael McCurry, President Clinton’s former press secretary and a veteran of more than 30 years in Washington, spoke with Tom Fox about how to hone your communication skills. Fox is a guest writer for On Leadership and vice president for leadership and innovation at the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service. He also heads up its Center for Government Leadership.

How important is good communication to effective leadership?

Communications is now central to the functioning of the American presidency, and at the presidential level, there’s no replacing the power of the bully pulpit. Communications is also increasingly vital for the performance and success of people in all walks of life — corporate executives, high-school principals or the mayor of your town. If they cannot communicate effectively, they’re not going to be effective in their role.

What are the keys for becoming a skillful communicator?

I have a presentation I call “The 5 Cs.” The first is credibility. You have to be authentic and come across as a straight-shooter providing factual information, because if you come across as a spin-doctor, you’ll lose your audience. The second is candor. People need to be willing to address shortcomings, which becomes critical when addressing something that’s gone wrong in a crisis environment.

The third is clarity: How can you crystallize the message that you’re conveying so that it is as vivid and understandable as possible? This is especially important in government because so much is driven by a vocabulary that’s leaded down with acronyms and language that’s not user-friendly. The fourth is compassion. Understand the person on the other side of the issue and why they think the way they do. The fifth is commitment, which is not easy. There are some people who are naturally gifted as communicators like President Clinton and some who have to learn how to do it more effectively, requiring a commitment of time and resources.

What are some of the biggest mistakes federal leaders make when communicating to their employees and to the American public?

Typically, they are using vocabulary, acronyms or abbreviations that are unique to the process of government and not accessible to the average citizen, and sometimes not even accessible to their own workforce. Also, sometimes policies are in a grey area and not always clear. I ran into this a lot in the White House. When there’s lack of clarity in policies, there’s a lot of hedging in the answers and that can confuse various audiences that need to hear the message.

How can federal leaders communicate more effectively?

The most important thing federal workers can do, particularly those in decision-making roles, is engage their public affairs professionals. Every federal agency has a wonderful array of people who are skilled at communications. These people are skilled at taking complicated reports and ideas and boiling them down to something more presentable. If this resource is not accessible, bring in qualified professionals that do media training or speech coaching. Even Bill Clinton had to practice something like the State of the Union address many times to make sure that it went over well.

How can federal managers motivate their staff during a crisis?

Federal workers work for an agency that has a mission and a purpose, so they shouldn’t take criticism personally. It’s important to remember the job that you’ve been hired to do and to keep doing good work even in the midst of a crisis. You can’t let everything shut down and lose your focus on the work that has to keep going on behalf of the American people.

On a personal level, you can’t let yourself be weighed down by the burden of whatever responsibility you’re carrying. I found that one of the more effective things was to keep a sense of humor. There’s a bulletproof vest in the press secretary’s office, and each press secretary leaves a note for their successor in the pocket of that vest. Mine was, “This thing will be a lot less useful than a good joke and a sense of humor.”

What advice do you have for leaders in the midst of so much negativity toward government?

Avoid demonizing those on the other side of the debate. I think what is so poisonous in our system right now is the sense that you have to obliterate your adversary in the public realm of communications. Stop and say, “If I knew this person and I was sitting and talking with them, would I talk to them this way?” It seems like the anonymity — and charge and counter charge — has led people to say things that they wouldn’t say in polite company. People who have been around a long time ought to take on some leadership, mentor people and say, “Let’s try to find ways to be a little more amicable and take more responsibility for the vocabulary that we use.”

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Mike McCurry served as press secretary under President Clinton. (Public Strategies Washington)
April 2, 2013

In this highly charged political era, characterized by instant communication and frequent miscommunication, the need for federal leaders to be clear and credible is extremely important for effective governance. Michael McCurry, President Clinton’s former press secretary and a veteran of more than 30 years in Washington, spoke with Tom Fox about how to hone your communication skills. Fox is a guest writer for On Leadership and vice president for leadership and innovation at the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service. He also heads up its Center for Government Leadership.

How important is good communication to effective leadership?

Communications is now central to the functioning of the American presidency, and at the presidential level, there’s no replacing the power of the bully pulpit. Communications is also increasingly vital for the performance and success of people in all walks of life — corporate executives, high-school principals or the mayor of your town. If they cannot communicate effectively, they’re not going to be effective in their role.

What are the keys for becoming a skillful communicator?

I have a presentation I call “The 5 Cs.” The first is credibility. You have to be authentic and come across as a straight-shooter providing factual information, because if you come across as a spin-doctor, you’ll lose your audience. The second is candor. People need to be willing to address shortcomings, which becomes critical when addressing something that’s gone wrong in a crisis environment.

The third is clarity: How can you crystallize the message that you’re conveying so that it is as vivid and understandable as possible? This is especially important in government because so much is driven by a vocabulary that’s leaded down with acronyms and language that’s not user-friendly. The fourth is compassion. Understand the person on the other side of the issue and why they think the way they do. The fifth is commitment, which is not easy. There are some people who are naturally gifted as communicators like President Clinton and some who have to learn how to do it more effectively, requiring a commitment of time and resources.

What are some of the biggest mistakes federal leaders make when communicating to their employees and to the American public?

Typically, they are using vocabulary, acronyms or abbreviations that are unique to the process of government and not accessible to the average citizen, and sometimes not even accessible to their own workforce. Also, sometimes policies are in a grey area and not always clear. I ran into this a lot in the White House. When there’s lack of clarity in policies, there’s a lot of hedging in the answers and that can confuse various audiences that need to hear the message.

How can federal leaders communicate more effectively?

The most important thing federal workers can do, particularly those in decision-making roles, is engage their public affairs professionals. Every federal agency has a wonderful array of people who are skilled at communications. These people are skilled at taking complicated reports and ideas and boiling them down to something more presentable. If this resource is not accessible, bring in qualified professionals that do media training or speech coaching. Even Bill Clinton had to practice something like the State of the Union address many times to make sure that it went over well.

How can federal managers motivate their staff during a crisis?

Federal workers work for an agency that has a mission and a purpose, so they shouldn’t take criticism personally. It’s important to remember the job that you’ve been hired to do and to keep doing good work even in the midst of a crisis. You can’t let everything shut down and lose your focus on the work that has to keep going on behalf of the American people.

On a personal level, you can’t let yourself be weighed down by the burden of whatever responsibility you’re carrying. I found that one of the more effective things was to keep a sense of humor. There’s a bulletproof vest in the press secretary’s office, and each press secretary leaves a note for their successor in the pocket of that vest. Mine was, “This thing will be a lot less useful than a good joke and a sense of humor.”

What advice do you have for leaders in the midst of so much negativity toward government?

Avoid demonizing those on the other side of the debate. I think what is so poisonous in our system right now is the sense that you have to obliterate your adversary in the public realm of communications. Stop and say, “If I knew this person and I was sitting and talking with them, would I talk to them this way?” It seems like the anonymity — and charge and counter charge — has led people to say things that they wouldn’t say in polite company. People who have been around a long time ought to take on some leadership, mentor people and say, “Let’s try to find ways to be a little more amicable and take more responsibility for the vocabulary that we use.”

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