Martha Joynt Kumar already has outlasted six presidents and 14 press secretaries to become as much a fixture at the White House as the Secret Service. Ever since her very first daily briefing by press secretary Ron Nessen back in 1975, she has been there when she isn’t teaching classes or writing books.
She is there talking to staffers and reporters—taking careful notes on who asks questions, who gets interviews, and how presidents communicate their messages to the American public. A political science professor at Towson University, Kumar is a leading scholar on White House communications and presidential transitions. She has written Managing the President’s Message: The White House Communication Operation as well as coedited White House World: Transitions, Organization, and Office Operations and coauthored Portraying the President: The White House and the News Media.
A native of the Washington area, Kumar graduated from Connecticut College before earning a master’s degree and doctorate from Columbia University. She also serves on the board of directors of the White House Historical Association. Edited excerpts of her interview with National Journal follow.
NJ What is the biggest mistake that a White House can make in communications?
KUMAR When a president comes in, there is a tendency for White House officials to believe their administration is going to be different from that of their predecessors. The reality is that White Houses are more similar than they are different, as are the rhythms of the relationships between the White House and key institutions, such as Congress, interest groups, and news organizations. Each institution has its own needs and rules that don’t change when a new president comes in. That leads to a similar White House organizational structure from one administration to another.
NJ What is the biggest change you’ve noticed since you started studying the White House?
KUMAR The pace and prominence of presidential communications has grown along with the number and variety of media linking the public and the president. The last three presidents gave almost the same number of addresses and remarks at the 27-month mark—an average of 1,145—while [Ronald] Reagan only had only 686 and George H. W. Bush 890. With three cable [news] networks at the White House, the last three presidents had many more opportunities than previous presidents did to go live from the White House with their speeches and appearances and to reach people through websites and blogs.
At the same time, though, with interest groups as prolific as they now are, there are many competing voices trying to reach presidential audiences with differing messages. The result is a situation where officials and the public alike are often met with a great deal of information but without a sense of what it all means. That lack of understanding is a challenge to a modern president and means a chief executive must repeat his messages many times and in a variety of ways in order to have people comprehend what he is telling them.
NJ Which White House had the most effective communications operation?
KUMAR Of all recent administrations, President Reagan had the most successful communications with the public. People knew what he stood for and what he meant when he spoke. There was one reason his communications operation can be regarded as so effective: the president himself. With a background as an actor, he knew the power of words and spent time shaping them. One of the points that stands out in his White House diary is the amount of time he put into crafting his speeches and preparing for his press conferences. He gave fewer speeches than his successors have, but the public was never confused about who he was or what he meant. He spent many weekends at Camp David, with his major activity working on his speeches for the coming week. He held a weekly Friday-morning meeting with his speechwriting staff going over the speech schedule for the week ahead.
NJ What is the biggest misconception the public has about the White House and the press?
KUMAR People often assume the relationship between the White House and the press is a hostile one. In fact, each depends on the other to effectively do its own job. The president needs the press in order to communicate with the public, and reporters need the president because he is central to their readers’ and viewers’ concept of news. A cooperative relationship is more productive than a hostile one, which is why reporters ask their questions in a civil tone with little edge to them. They want information rather than scoring points in information-gathering settings.
NJ Do you have any advice for White Houses on communicating their message?
KUMAR First and most important, tell the truth. For the benefit of the president, White House communications operations need to pull together as full a story as they can. Provide reporters with accurate information—provide it on a timely basis and in response to the queries they are receiving. If they do so, they will have a relationship of trust that will serve both sides well, especially at points when time and tempers are short.
This article appears in the September 10, 2011, edition of National Journal Magazine.