Public relations has been integral to the U.S. presidency from the start. After all, it’s the world’s most famous job and each president needs to convey their message to the American people to shape media coverage, establish credibility and win support for key priorities.
The White House press secretary is one of the most important roles in presidential PR, despite being a relatively recent creation. Let’s look at how the role emerged and what responsibilities it entails.
Presidential PR, Yesterday and Today
Some of the best-known aspects of the presidency, including ones related to PR, date back to its inception. For example, the classic title “Mr. President” originated as a savvy bit of PR, meant to contrast George Washington’s new position with that of a monarch who would possess a more formal title.
In those days, there were no White House press conferences (or even formal press secretaries), nor any concerted, multichannel PR campaigns. Flash forward to the administration of President Donald Trump, and PR strategy has come a long way. It is now more instrumental than ever to how the executive branch operates and is perceived by the public:
- The Trump administration’s two longest-tenured White House press secretaries, Sean Spicer and Sarah Huckabee Sanders, dominated airwaves more than any of their predecessors, regularly receiving wall-to-wall coverage on TV and social media.
- Indeed, the preeminence of 24-hour cable news networks, such as Fox News and CNN, means that what White House press secretaries say at the podium, post to a social account or write in press releases can be amplified for hours or days on end.
- As of early 2020, traditional question-and-answer White House press briefings had been entirely replaced by other means of communications, such as posts to the official @PressSec account on Twitter and statements to media outlets.
As we can see, the White House press secretary role is evolving to match the media environment and preferences of the public. To excel in the role, any PR professional will need a versatile set of skills as well as considerable experience in politics and in navigating multiple media channels.
White House Press Secretary: Job Description and Requirements
The White House press secretary has a variety of potential responsibilities. These can vary considerably from one administration to the next, as the examples above illustrate. Some of the most common tasks entrusted to a press secretary include:
- Leading a regularly scheduled press conference or briefing
- Answering questions from members of the media
- Posting updates to official social media accounts
- Reporting on the president’s daily schedule
- Listing and describing any visitors to the White House
- Summarizing the president’s reaction to current events
- Writing and distributing statements in response to relevant news and coverage
- Establishing embargo rules for when a certain item can be published
- Traveling with the president on some occasions
- Preparing the president for press conferences and speeches
At some junctures, the White House may opt to have a deputy press secretary on staff as well, in addition to the main press secretary. This role is similarly flexible and potentially wide-ranging. For example, in early 2019, near the end of Huckabee Sanders’ tenure as White House press secretary, a deputy press secretary was hired to handle inquiries about congressional oversight and the U.S. Department of Justice.
How to Become a White House Press Secretary
Recent White House press secretaries had professional backgrounds as PR spokespeople, political organizers and TV personalities, among other roles. Spicer, for instance, founded his own PR firm and worked for the Republican National Committee prior to becoming White House press secretary.
Why experience matters so much for becoming press secretary
This type of combined PR and political experience is especially valuable for becoming a press secretary or deputy press secretary, as these roles are highly competitive and usually awarded to seasoned communications professionals. In other words, being a White House press secretary/deputy press secretary requires both political and professional acumen.
Someone in this role will not only be closely aligned and familiar with the policies of the current administration, but also have the proven capacity to create, deliver and improve PR messaging related to them. Moreover, they must be capable of doing all of that while under the unique strain of being one of the most recognizable faces and voices of the administration. Experience in PR and the political sphere is essential to building such capabilities.
What type of degree is helpful for a potential White House press secretary?
There is no hard and fast requirement for a specific degree when aiming to become White House press secretary. However, some areas of study seem to be more helpful than others. Huckabee Sanders concentrated in political science and mass communications, while Spicer had a degree in government.
Other domains that can build the necessary connections and skills needed for the role include:
The online Master’s in Strategic Public Relations (SPR) degree from the George Washington University (GW) provides rigorous training in modern PR theory and practice. Students engage with topics relevant to the White House press secretary role through courses such as Media Relations in a Digital World, Political Socialization and Public Opinion, and Issues Management and Crisis Communications.
To learn more about the program and its curriculum, visit the overview page. You can also answer a few quick questions to receive a copy of our brochure with additional information.