The Office of Communications

By Kumar, Martha Joynt | Presidential Studies Quarterly, December 2001 | Go to article overview

The Office of Communications


Kumar, Martha Joynt, Presidential Studies Quarterly


The Office of Communications is one of several institutions crucial to the start-up of the White House because of the central place of effective communications in a successful presidency. (1) The four presidents elected to a second term in the post--World War II period each had an effective communications operation in addition to being a personally successful communicator. What an effective communications organization brought them was the opportunity to publicly display the issues on which they wanted to focus as well as to develop strategies designed to achieve their personal, policy, and electoral goals. The components of effective communications for Presidents Eisenhower, Nixon, Reagan, and Clinton included personal attributes and a communications operation that incorporated daily press operations and an organization or, in the case of Eisenhower, an individual, Press Secretary James Hagerty, capable of planning ahead for presidential and for administration-wide publicity. From Eisenhower's administration to the present, successful communications has evolved into a system in which the organization plays a key role in strategic planning, its mission the coordination of people, programs, and institutions. The Office of Communications is front and center in White House communications campaigns waged on behalf of a president and his programs. The coordination and production roles of the director of the office and those who serve in it are central to successful White House publicity.

While the Office of Communications is vital to the communications of an effective presidency no matter who serves as chief executive, the position of communications director has proved to be a volatile one. Since its creation in 1969, twenty-two people have headed it. That is less than a year and a half per director. There have been approximately the same number of press secretaries, but that position has existed since 1929, forty years more than the Office of Communications. The casualty rate of communications directors reflects the difficult environment he or she operates in as well as the multiple and sometimes conflicting demands placed on the person. (2) George Stephanopoulos, who held that post for the first four months of the Clinton administration, observed that his being relieved of the communications position was not a surprise. "By definition, if the President isn't doing well, it's a communications problem. That's always going to be a natural place to make a change." (3) The communications director is held responsible for how a president is doing yet has little in the way of resources to affect the outcomes that form the basis for judging presidential performance. For that reason, his or her position is the White House hot seat.

The Environment within which the Office of Communications Functions

The important place of presidential communications can be seen in the manner in which the topic drives the agenda of daily staff meetings, the size of the commitment to it of White House and administration resources and people, and the way the function has insinuated itself into the operations of almost every White House office.

Successful Communications Is Linked to the Policy and Operational Aspects of a Presidency

Presidential communications relates directly to what a president does in office and how effectively the White House can use its organizational resources to publicize goals and achievements. "A successful communications strategy is only one aspect of a successful presidency," observed Mike McCurry, press secretary to President Clinton.

   You have to have a good solid sense of priority and where you're going and
   mission, and everything is supportive of that. That involves good
   leadership from the Chief of Staff, good policy planning, good legislative
   relations on the Hill. It's all part of a seamless whole. That's what makes
   for a good presidency. (4)

Communications strategies and the staff developing them aim at building a perception among people that the policies of a president and his administration have altered their lives in a positive manner. …

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