Sarah Sanders Set Spokesperson Standard

Bruce Mendelsohn, Principal, The Hired Pen

You may neither have liked what she said or how she said it, nor for or to whom. But on the eve of her departure, it’s difficult to deny Sarah Sanders’ effectiveness as President Trump’s trumpet. In 23 months as White House Spokesperson, Sanders, 36, gained prominence as one of Trump’s most loyal and longest-serving top officials.

Whether out of Divine ordinance (“God wanted Donald Trump to be President”) or human obstinance, Sander’s relentless—often disingenuous—advocacy of the President’s policies and her dogged defense of her boss certainly deserves his praise and affection… as well as the grudging admiration of fellow Spokespeople.

While many people (including this author) will have difficulty separating her performance from her politics and her loyalty from her likeability, an objective look at what she did and how she did it—instead of for whom—can reveal a lot about Spokesperson “do’s” and “don’ts”.

Beyond the community of professional communicators, there’s some confusion regarding Spokesperson duties and responsibilities. Indeed, the title itself has many variations: Media Relations Officer, Public Affairs Officer, Press Secretary, Chief Communicator, etc. Regardless of title and detailed duties, the position requires a suitably qualified professional to:

  • Serve as “the voice” of an organization
  • Clearly communicate and represent the organization’s priorities
  • Defend and uphold the organization’s policies and/or programs
  • Reflect the organization’s and/or leader’s philosophy

By these standards, Sanders’ performance wins a Gold Medal: She consistently reinforced the President’s messages; she tenaciously deflected criticism of his policies; she unfailingly promoted his priorities. And as we witnessed in her infrequent press conferences, she enthusiastically reflected his disdain for, and mistrust of, the media.

During her tenure (taking cues from her boss), Sanders successfully squelched media engagement with, and access to, the White House. According to The Washington Post, “In January, the White House set a record for the longest stretch in modern history without a news briefing, 41 days. It set another record, 42 days, in March, followed by a third streak that reached 94 days on June 13th.” Under Sanders, The Post opined, “The principal function of a press secretary—representing the White House in media briefings—all but ceased to exist.”

Led by her boss’ example, Sanders energetically eschewed formal media interaction, preferring brief “gaggles” that happened when and where she wanted. When compelled to engage, Sanders played a savvy shell game, shrewdly redirecting reporters’ attention by pushing back on their questions, publicly embarrassing them, and threatening to revoke their access.

Sanders’ lack of accessibility and controlled interactions generated a smokescreen within which POTUS operated. Deftly diverting, distracting and discounting the media whom she was supposed to serve, the smooth-talking Southern storyteller defined the narrative and dictated the pace of White House media relations.

If you have the stomach to strip away her dissembling, her smugness, her sarcasm, and her self-righteousness, you could concede that Sarah Sanders had a virtuoso performance as White House Spokesperson. She did precisely what the President required: Engaged in media machinations to alleviate his tribulations.


Three Reasons to Include “Traditional Media” in Your Ad Budget in 2019 & BeyondAbout the Author: Bruce Mendelsohn is Principal of The Hired Pen, a award winning communications, branding and messaging firm based in the Boston area. Specializing in integrating and measuring the effectiveness of digital marketing, content development, PR and social media campaigns, Mr. Mendelsohn has promoted brands including McGruff the Crime Dog, researched and developed content for Congressional reports and testimony, helped launch a digital marketing firm, and raised millions of dollars to fund construction of the National Law Enforcement MuseumA Top 100 Branding Expert to Follow on Twitter, Mr. Mendelsohn has been quoted in the New York Times for his social media expertise. A native Washingtonian and U.S. Army veteran, Mr. Mendelsohn was a civilian First Responder at the Boston Marathon bombing and serves on the Executive Board of the BSA’s Heart of New England Council. You can reach him atbruce.mendelsohn90@gmail.com

 

 

 

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12 Comments

  1. Ted Katz on June 16, 2019 at 5:49 am

    Really interesting take, Bruce. She did her job and did it well and let’s not forget the inherent sexism in the comments about her.



    • Bruce R Mendelsohn on June 17, 2019 at 4:43 pm

      Thanks Ted. Appreciate the comment. I seriously doubt a male Press Secretary would receive such vile verbiage regarding his looks.



  2. Gary Brady on June 16, 2019 at 4:42 pm

    Mostly legit analysis but for references to the idea that Sanders was even slightly savvy or shrewd or in any way clever. Ignoring the questions she was asked so that she could spout her boss` famtasies and fabrications requires no intelligence.



    • Boris Koliakin on June 17, 2019 at 10:57 am

      Gary Brady – You are supposed to be commenting about the article and the writer’s observations. If you want to discuss politics go somewhere else. Thank you



    • Bruce R Mendelsohn on June 17, 2019 at 4:46 pm

      Thanks Gary. I spoke about this very issue today with a journalism colleague: He said that the evaluation of her performance depends on whom she was supposed to serve. As a Federal employee, he argued, Sanders serves the public. This article argues that she serves the President. If the former, her performance was reprehensible. If the latter, her performance was brilliant.



  3. tom on June 16, 2019 at 5:12 pm

    yep, my boss tells me to lie and i do it and that makes me smart



    • Bruce R Mendelsohn on June 17, 2019 at 4:57 pm

      This comment made me laugh out loud. Ironic!



  4. Steve Cody on June 17, 2019 at 7:56 am

    I think we live in parallel universes. Sarah Sanders did more to demean the integrity and role of the Washington Press Corps than any of her predecessors (including the evil Ron Ziegler). You may give her a gold medal for repeating lies, dodging questions and insulting the media, but I’d send her a bucket of coal, Those of us who see freedom of the press under constant attack would never, ever salute Sarah Sanders in any way, shape or form. #VivaLaFreePress



    • Bruce R Mendelsohn on June 17, 2019 at 4:49 pm

      Appreciate your comment, Steve, and agree 100%. In her treatment of the Washington (indeed, the world) Press Corps she certainly set back media relations and eroded the Freedom of the Press. As her boss’ mouthpiece, she reflected his disdain and contempt for a free and open media.



      • Charlotte Loomis on June 20, 2019 at 10:23 pm

        Bruce – great article. You show us in the review of “spokesperson” – the importance of focus. Thanks for making that a positive.



  5. Rich Jachetti on June 17, 2019 at 9:54 am

    Mendellshon, you have your priorities so backwards you’re a disgrace to the PR profession. It’s people in the PR business with your absurd sense of ethics and competency that have earned the oft used term of “flack” by the media as a apt descriptor for people who would praise a flack like Sanders.



    • Bruce R Mendelsohn on June 17, 2019 at 4:56 pm

      Thanks for your comment, Rich. As this article hopefully makes clear, I neither agree with her politics nor her reprehensible treatment of the media. I’d like to think we can set aside personal attacks in a discussion of her performance. While in this highly politicized environment you could certainly and justifiably call me naïve, I believe it’s unprofessional to question my ethics and competency. Nevertheless, I appreciate the time you took to comment.