Accountability & the Press Secretary

As we get closer to the inauguration of President-Elect Trump, now is a good time to discuss what it means to be accountable.

I’ve been seeing, reading and hearing quite a few op-eds and commentaries about changes that might come to the White House Press Room under the Trump administration.

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Sean Spicer, President-Elect Trump’s Press Secretary.  Photo courtesy of LinkedIn

The new press secretary Sean Spicer has even confirmed these changes.

 

With that in mind, I’d like to discuss who the White House Press Secretary is accountable to and how he can remain ethical in this public relations post.

Who is the White House Press Secretary accountable to?

According to the White House Transition Project presented by Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy in cooperation with the Moody Foundation,  the White House Press Secretary “presents Presidential information to many audiences, including the public, his special publics in Washington, and governments of nations around the globe” (“Office of the Press Secretary“; 2017-31; page 7).

There is a hierarchy of whom the White House Press Secretary is accountable to:

  1. President: The press secretary’s primary responsibility is to serve at the pleasure of the president.  Spicer’s main job is to control the message that President Trump and his administration want to put out to the press.  As typical of any press secretary, we can expect Spicer to be loyal to and protect the President as much as possible.  In turn, the press and the public should expect Spicer to give President Trump fair and objective council in regards to communication with the press and public. Spicer must convince Trump to allow Spicer to be the one unified voice of communication out of the White House.
  2. The White House Staff and government departments: Another function of the White House Press Secretary is to protect the interests of the White House Staff and to establish a working relationship with the entire staff to encourage a free exchange of communications between the President, various departments of the government and ultimately, the press.
  3. The Press: “Perhaps the most important factor characterizing the environment within which the Press Office functions is the cooperative character of the relationship between reporters and White House officials” (“Office of the Press Secretary“; 2017-31; page 9).  While Spicer’s first responsibility is to President Trump and his administration, it’s also important that Spicer maintain a good working relationship with the press. Without daily briefings, the relationship between the Trump administration and the press could be fractured even further than it is. Spicer needs to encourage Trump that social media is not the most credible, reliable way to provide important national information to the press or public.  The White House Transition Project also says that trust is an important factor between the office of the press secretary and the press.  Instead of being critical of the press, Spicer needs to become a relationship builder in the coming days. He needs to encourage the president to be better at providing the public with the “free flow of information” (Public Relations Society of America) and not to think of the press as the enemy or competition.
  4. The Public: Some may argue that the press and not the Press Secretary who is accountable to the public.  However, the Public Relations Society of America says this about “Disclosure of Information” as a primary function of those in a public relations position:

Core Principle: Open communication fosters informed decision making in a democratic society.

Intent:

To build trust with the public by revealing all information needed for responsible decision making.

Guidelines:

A member shall:

  • Be honest and accurate in all communications.
  • Act promptly to correct erroneous communications for which the member is responsible.
  • Investigate the truthfulness and accuracy of information released on behalf of those represented.
  • Reveal the sponsors for causes and interests represented.
  • Disclose financial interest (such as stock ownership) in a client’s organization.
  • Avoid deceptive practices.

Based upon this information, it is in Spicer’s best interest to follow this core principle in regards to being accountable to the public, as well as the President, staff and press.

5. The World: Outside of protecting the president and his interests, we should expect Spicer to protect our national interests when communicating with the press and world leaders.  We should expect Spicer to be one of our biggest advocates in ensuring privacy and confidential information. Lastly, we should expect Spicer to advocate against governmental conflicts of interest.


Sean Spicer has his work cut out for him.  I am anxious to see how he will carry out his duties in the Trump administration while being accountable to each of the competing constituencies of his office.

The position of the White House Press Secretary is never an easy one, but I believe that Spicer’s job will be that much tougher by the existing relationship between President-Elect Trump and the press.

I can only hope that Spicer will be honest, objective, loyal and fair not just when representing Trump, but also with ALL of his constituencies including the press and the public.

Time will tell.

 

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