Former White House Press Secretary: Continuous Learning Key to Professional Success

Obama White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest shared political and career advice with GSPM students.

July 18, 2017

By John Brandt

josh earnestFormer White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest told a group of students at George Washington University that taking a variety of jobs is key to career success in political communications.

During a recent appearance at the Graduate School of Political Management’s (GSPM) Ethical Standards in Public Relations course, Mr. Earnest told students that one of the key components of his professional career has been shifting from large organizations to smaller ones in order to learn and refine new skills.

He said that system was essential to landing one of the most well-known communications jobs—White House press secretary.

“There’s a pattern over the course of my career path that was very beneficial to me,” Mr. Earnest said. “I tried to look for opportunities where I was a part of a very big team that was led by someone I really respected where I was in an environment where I felt like I could learn something.

“Then I would pivot to an opportunity where I was running the show. Where I was the one calling the shots,” he said.

Mr. Earnest said that model gave him the opportunity to learn and to test new strategies every step of the way.

By GSPM student standards, Mr. Earnest was a latecomer to politics. His first involvement didn’t come until after he completed his undergraduate degree from Rice University, when he took a job doing opposition research for Houston
Democratic mayoral candidate Lee Brown. Though the tools were different (rapid response came via the fax machine not Twitter), the fundamentals were the same then as they are today. Mr. Earnest was responsible for cataloguing his boss’s past achievements and crafting counter-arguments for opponents’ attacks.   

After the campaign ended, Mr. Earnest moved to move to Washington, D.C., and eventually landed a job with a media firm doing message testing for New York City Independent mayoral candidate Michael Bloomberg, perhaps the largest and most well-funded mayoral campaign in the country. From that large operation, Mr. Earnest went small, taking a job on Capitol Hill as communications director for U.S. Rep. Robert Marion Berry (D-Ark.).

Moving back into electoral work, Mr. Earnest joined the Obama presidential campaign in Iowa in 2008, moved to the White House in January 2009 and stayed through the last day of the administration.

Mr. Earnest gave the students another piece of media relations advice that he said could be useful to the current occupants of the White House. He said that the way to deal with tough reporters is to give them what they crave: respect. Their approach with CNN’s Jim Acosta, for example, was to give him more of an answer than he expected. “And it worked,” said Mr. Earnest. “It didn’t always lead to the best stories… but he was fair and to his credit he worked really hard so when we gave him information he used it.”

Mr. Earnest said that understanding the role of the press is essential for any effective communicator.

After his opening remarks, students were privy to an “off-the-record” question-and-answer session where the former press secretary shared more career advice and White House insights.

 

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