Being taken from relative obscurity as Texas Gov. George W. Bush's press secretary to being analyzed by the national press was a shock to Karen Hughes. And while the stage she worked in changed when Bush became president and later when she worked on international relations for the State Department, she says her understanding and use of effective communications served her well.
“It’s great to be with government communicators who share my passion,” she told NAGC members attending the Communications School in Albuquerque. She says she is enjoying her time not being in the daily gossip columns and being at home with her husband.
Nicknamed the "Prophet," by the president, Hughes says the scrutiny on the American president is intense, not just in America but throughout the world. She said she made a mistake by focusing so much on the American public early in the Bush presidency. “In the aftermath of 9-11, that had to change," she said. She quickly set up coalition information centers across the globe, so spokespersons in those centers could respond quickly while it was nighttime in America.
Government communicators not only have to learn to work in a global environment, she said, but also need to be aware they are working in a time when government communications is often misunderstood.
"There is an expectation on us that we should deal with facts and truth," she said. "Facts conflict," she added, noting that government communicators not only have to deal with facts but also the broad context in which facts are being used. This is further complicated, she said, since facts and truth are not always the prism through which the media looks at government.
For example, if statistics come out saying crime is down, it would be very truthful for an official to publicly say that. However, victims of crimes or people living in areas where crime has not gone down, those statistics will not resonate to those people. Consequently, it's better for the official to say, "any amount of crime is too much and while we're making progress, more needs to be done."
That's one reason why it is critical for government communicators to be at the table when public policy is being discussed, Hughes says. Communicators can provide the perspective of the public and provide insight on how the media will react. They also understand the core values of the officeholder, candidate, agency or issue involved.
Hughes shared the five C's of communications that she says has helped her throughout her career. Those are clarity, conviction, compassion, credibility and consistency.
She encouraged the audience to be proactive, rather than reactive. "The times you want to hide under the desk are the times you really need to talk."
The goal of government communicators should be to create "a dialogue, not a monologue," she said. “Our efforts are especially vital in this era of dramatic time and change.”