Communications Director, Congressional Office
Date of Interview: April 12th, 2017
Q: Would you please state your job title, where you currently work, and how long it’s been since you graduated from college?
A: Sure. So my name is [name redacted], I am the communications director for the House Natural Resources Committee Democratic Staff. I graduated undergrad in 2005.
Q: Great. And could you provide a brief description of your primary job functions?
A: Yeah. I, as communications director, I am in charge of managing our proactive outreach to the media, I pitch stories about things that a ranking member Congressman Grijalva, who’s my boss, is doing legislatively. We have a really broad jurisdiction that covers mining laws, logging laws, federal land in general, including the National Park Service, so it’s my job to make sure that what we’re doing and his priorities get in the news as much as possible. So I do all the proactive pitching, along with a press secretary that I oversee. In addition, I draft a lot of our op-eds, I make sure that all of our press releases are good and accurate and thorough and well-written. I draft most of those myself, some our press secretary does. Other than that, it’s my job to keep up good relationships with reports that we work with, even if I’m not pitching them that day. Being effective is not just about writing, it’s kind of about maintaining a network and knowing that I can pitch people on an idea kind of on a moment’s notice, and that they’ll take my call and that they know that I’m reliable and trustworthy. So the writing element of my job is sort of a combination of the day-to-day business of writing press releases, emailing reporters to kind of get them hooked on an idea that I want them to be interested in, and then the sort of longer term projects of writing op-eds, pitching op-eds, staying in touch with opinion page editors. So it’s sort of a mix, it runs the gamut. And very rarely, I’ll help write or edit or both a report that we’re doing just to make sure that not only is the information accurate, which is part of the job of the policy staff, but that it’s clear and actually well-written and would convey the information that we want conveyed in a really clear and useful way. So any writing that needs doing that’s sort of public-facing, that reporters or the public will see that is not just for internal consumption, at one point or another in the process I am involved with.
Q: Great. Okay, excellent. And it sounds like you do a lot of writing. Is it possible for you to estimate maybe in an average week what percentage of your job requires writing?
A: Well, in terms of work product, probably 60 to 75 percent in an average week. Because a lot of what we do is done first via press release, just as a way of getting information efficiently, and then if it’s sort of high profile, or I need to make sure that people are on things right away, then I will do some follow up phonecalls. But that’s sort of based on the writing product that I’ve already put out. So that’s sort of ancillary to– a lot of my work starts with writing and then goes from there.
Q: I see. That makes sense, yeah. I can kind of guess the answer to this, but could you dig into the primary purposes of some of these communications? Like what are you working to accomplish with these documents?
A: Sure. So I mean generally, one of our press releases will be along the lines of, “Congressman Grijalva and/or some combination of democratic members of the committee wrote a letter to the president today to say x, y, and z, to urge him to take a policy position, or to release information, or to drop this idea or pursue that idea, or stop doing something they disagree with.” Or we could just as easily be trying to get something out of the interior department, which we oversee, so we could be writing a letter to the interior secretary. Or, just as an example, just yesterday in fact, Congressman Grijalva and the Center for Biological Diversity filed a lawsuit against the Secretary of Homeland Security to try to compel a new environmental analysis of our border enforcement program, which includes the potential construction of a border wall. So rather than calling 50 individual reports and saying the same thing, it’s my job to write a release that explains what we’re doing and that makes it newsworthy, which we always think is sort of self evident, but to a reporter who has ten things they could be doing that day, it’s my job to be clear and quick and useful and understand their needs and meet them as best as I can. And luckily, I used to be an environmental reporter, so I kind of understand a lot of what might grab their eye and what they need to show an editor to get approval to write a story like that. So I try to write them as close to a news article as I can, and I kind of have those professional skills in my back pocket. So that’s releases, but that’s a lot of what I do.
Q: Okay, that makes a lot of sense. That’s perfect. Do you mind telling me what you studied in school and whether you were familiar with these writing genres when you were a student?
A: That’s a funny question actually – there really is no one way to do a press release, people have different ideas and different writing styles, and people certainly bring their different ideas about how to do it to their– some press releases are shaped much more by the preferences of the member of Congress you work for. So my way of doing it is sort of a product of my journalistic training, but not everybody who is a communications director, certainly not on Capitol Hill, has that background. Some people did PR, some people studied political science and then they sort of fell into policy work, so it’s really hard to say that there is one model. So what I do is I try, like I said, to kind of write a press release as much like a finished news story as possible without going overboard and without overwriting, because generally people’s eyes will glaze over if you just go on and on and on. So I try to cut to the chase as fast as possible, I like to think I know how to write a good headline and a pretty snappy lead paragraph. The idea is to provide them with the news and not make them look for it, do that as fast as you can, and then give a quote that actually sounds like something they could plug right into a story rather than trying to– I think some people sort of make the mistake of kind of like, bait your interest but not tell you too much, but that doesn’t work as well in my experience. Anyway, I could go on and on, but that’s kind of how I operate.
Q: That’s great, that’s super interesting. Thank you, yeah. Could you tell me a little bit about your writing process? The first part of this is how writing assignments or tasks are given to you, though it seems to me that the answer to that is the news and the actions in the office dictate when those tasks come to you, but if you could tell me a little bit about how you prepare, steps you take from start to completion? And if it’s useful you could just pick a typical project like a press release or some other project.
A: Sure. Well the process sort of depends on what I need produce. Like for a press release, it’s a fairly straightforward process – I usually start with knowing or finding out something that we’re doing, a lot of which is somewhat staff-directed, because members of Congress can’t be everywhere and do everything. Usually a member of our staff will say, “Hey, here’s an idea, why don’t we do this? Why don’t we write this letter? Or why don’t we set up this meeting that will be open to the press? Or why don’t we call for such and such to happen?” And then we’ll kind of run that decision up the decision chain, and once it comes time to actually make the thing happen that we want everybody to know is happening, I have already been in contact with the relevant policy staff and with everybody that sort of needs to give me the information, so I have all the data and it’s kind of my job to put it into a workable order for public function. So in a way, I’m almost the internal news gathering service, like I need to know everything about what it is we’re going to do. Sometimes I need to call multiple people to make sure I have all of that information. Now it’s pretty rare that that’s time-consuming, because we all work in pretty close proximity, but sometimes I need to go around and call a policy staffer and our chief counsel and our staff director and get different parts of what I need. And again, having been a reporter, I’m fairly comfortable doing that, like my work method makes sense with that in mind. I am already good at calling people, talking to people, asking the right questions, kind of trying to be efficient with my use of information. So anyway, for a press release, that’s usually most of what goes into it, and then sitting down to write it is not, I mean at this point in my career, it’s not much of a slog. I know pretty well what the news is, and I know pretty well how to communicate it. The one question that I always have to ask myself is how much background to go into, because I’m always tempted to try to make everything as much of a story as I can, and what I mean by that is that rather than just kind of saying, “This is what happened. Here’s Congressman Grijalva’s quote, period,” – that’s what some offices do. They just kind of put it out there on the line as bluntly as possible and sort of leave it at that. And sometimes that works, especially if you know your local news market, and you know they’re not going to care about 75 percent of what you write anyway, you can kind of take that tack just blurting it out and trusting that they’re going to call you if they want more. In my case, because our jurisdiction is so broad and so weirdly distributed around the country, I have to think on the one hand, if he still represents that district back in Arizona, and they kind of have their own take on what we do, there’s the dessert, I kind of think about, are they going to care about this story if it’s not the dessert? And can I try to make them care about it anyway? Or, alternately, there are all these publications on Capitol Hill that care about Congress, so is this a story where I can present an angle that is about Congress that is not just about the environment, that I can get sort of a general political reporter interested? So I’m kind of trying to balance all of these things as much as possible, and it’s sort of an art and a science, but I really just do a lot of it by feel at this point. I have been on Capitol Hill since 2009, so I just kind of have a voice that I’ve developed over the years that my boss trusts at this point, and so after a while, you just kind of get a feel for what works best and what reporters are looking for, and I’ve just kind of come to trust it at this point.
Q: Absolutely. Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. For a press release or something like that, could you talk a little bit about, does it go through multiple drafts? Does anyone else give you feedback once it’s drafted or, I assume you’re the final say on it and you’re the drafter, so how does that work?
A: So there are drafts, I mean there’s often a process of me writing a first draft, and once I’ve gotten all this information that I need, then sending the draft itself back to the people I sort of initially talked to, to say, “Okay, here’s this information we’re asking you for, why do we want it? Okay, I’ve got it, here’s my press release, does this actually say what we think we want to say? Does this make sense or am I missing something?” And so policy staff will look at it and they’ll offer suggestions, and usually they’re fairly minor, although once in awhile I’ll either have left a factoid that they realize that, “Oh no, wait, it’s important that we add this,” or whatever, if they have suggestions. And then typically they will go to the staff director who’s sort of the, well, the head of the committee staff, it’s sort of the committee equivalent of a chief of staff, so he’s sort of really the final appeal on everything the staff is doing. He’ll take a look at it, it’s very rare that he has significant rewrites, but he’ll often say, “Okay, well, for whatever reason, let’s remember to thank this person, or let’s remember that this thing happened two months ago and we need to point to it again because it’s relevant context for such and such a reason.” It’s kind of his job to be the institutional memory, and make sure that everybody’s satisfied. So yeah, there’s certainly a revision process, and like I say, it’s rare that there are significant rewrites, but there’s often a fair amount of give and take before something actually goes out.
Q: Gotcha, okay. And how long does a writing project like that, a press release like that, how long does it usually take start to finish?
A: Usually, once we know what we’re going to say, it shouldn’t take more than, I mean a representative sampling I think would run the gamut from half an hour to half a day, but it’s very rare that it, it’s not like I’ll start drafting a press release one day and then I’ll be like, “Oh boy, that took a lot out of me,” and you know, “Be ready to send it tomorrow.” To be effective, we need to be able to get these things out fairly quickly.
Q: I see, okay, great. And could you describe what is at stake in your writing?
A: Well, to a great extent, my boss’s reputation [laughter] would be one of the biggest things. I mean, I think at the same time, public perception of the issues that we oversee. It’s not like it’s just writing on need, but I think a lot of what we do, there aren’t many members of Congress who just work on environmental issues all day every day – you can’t find more than a handful. And so if we do a good job of not only policy-wise but PR-wise, we are able to get a lot more people aware of what’s happening in Congress. And if we do a poor job, then people either think the democrats aren’t doing anything, or they don’t care, or they’re bad at what they’re doing, and we can do all the good policy work in the world behind the scenes, but if no one knows it’s happening, or if they hear the wrong message about it, or if they kind of don’t know what to believe, or if they think that our message is unconvincing, then a lot of our hard work goes to waste, and that’s ultimately on me.
Q. Gotcha, that makes a lot of sense. That’s really interesting, it’s one of those things that I guess I always knew, but have never heard it articulated like that, that’s great, yeah. In what ways would you say that your academic background prepared you to write in this role?
A: I mean for both press releases and for op-eds and for generally anything else I write, my baseline is the schooling I got in journalism in undergrad, and that actually helped a lot more than you might think because, like I said earlier, a lot of what I try to do is write a press release the way I would write a news article, and knowing how those are structured and kind of knowing what reporters sort of expect out of a press release and recognizing, “Okay, here is the most important piece of information, here is the most important piece of context, here is the useful reference to some third party source of information,” – rather having to kind of read it a couple of times and sort of be searching for what’s important, or not really knowing how this is supposed to flow, I just sort of, I like to think at least now, I have enough training and I have enough experience and I sort of have enough of this under my belt that I can communicate with reporters via written work product without having to get on the phone and sort of talk them through what I’m trying to get them to see. And that started in journalism school because, obviously I had to practice writing about stories and I was actually a journalist after I graduated for four years before I came to the Hill, so I used to do a lot of the work that the people I now communicate with every day are currently doing. So I like to think I know what it is they need.
Q: Yeah, absolutely. Are there ways in which you were unprepared as a writer when you entered the workforce?
A: To some extent, I’d say, I’d like to think of myself not just as school-taught but self-taught, as far as writing is concerned, and I’m sure a lot of people who write at least partially for a living would say the same. In my case, I’ve always really, my real ambition was to be a novelist, and it still is, actually, and so I read a lot of fiction and nonfiction. There’s not a lot of art into what I write [laughter] on a daily basis, because you kind of need to modulate your writing to suit the purpose, and with a press release, or to some extent, an op-ed, although those are slightly different, what you need is to kind of get to the point, you don’t need a lot of flowery language. With an op-ed, it’s a little bit different because you’re not just laying out bare facts, you’re kind of making a little bit more of an emotional as well as an intellectual argument. You’re kind of appealing to people’s sense of their values, you’re not just kind of telling them something that happened. So you need to be able to draw that out in a way that is persuasive but also sort of follows a lot of the journalistic canons, for lack of a better term. And so that, I don’t think I was as prepared for by school. There’s no class just on op-ed writing, you kind of have to learn that tool yourself.
Q: Right. Are there practical things that you did to gain those skills?
A: Well, for my own part, I actually, because I was always interested in politics anyway, I spent a fair amount of time on online political chatboards, even when I was a teenager, kind of honing my persuasive writing because I thought it was fun and interesting. I didn’t get to use those skills very often in college because it just wasn’t necessary or I wasn’t called on to do it, but I did it a lot anyway, I did it with friends, and I sort of did it recreationally. And so I didn’t necessarily write at exactly op-ed length and exactly op-ed format, but a lot of the skills I was sort of developing on my own just because I sort of found them useful and interesting and kind of intellectually stimulating to kind of write persuasively, being able to use outside information, and not just kind of have to say, “Well I think this,” but, “Here’s why I think this, and here’s the information that I used to reach this conclusion, what’s your response?” to kind of put people on the spot, to challenge people with an argument and see how they responded. So when it came time to start writing op-eds professionally – and to be clear, I draft these, it’s not just me just ventriloquizing through my boss – but over time we can sort of reach a, not exactly a mindmeld, but sort of a point at which I know what he would say and I know how he likes to say it, and I’m following his voice and he’s kind of hopefully using me as someone who can put what he says into as good a written form as possible. It’s what he’s paying me to do, so I should be good at it [laughter]. So anyway, yeah, that was something that I think I’m just sort of lucky in that I am now paid to use some skills that I wanted to develop anyway.
Q: Excellent, yeah, that makes a lot of sense. Have you had any formal writing training or education since college?
A: Formal? No, not at all [laughter]. I mean, I never went to grad school, I never did any sort of creative writing certificate or anything, no.
Q: Okay, okay. Would you say you’re a successful workplace writer?
A: Yeah, I’d say so. I’d say that, as I say, we have a press secretary, but I have intentionally retained and been allowed to retain a lot of the formal writing duties, because I want to, and I seem to think I’m meeting the needs of the office, so I’m glad.
Q: Right, absolutely. And this is the last question actually – what skills would you say are the most central to writing in your specific role?
A: So one, accuracy, needless to say, but I think the sort of underrated one that people may not think about is speed. Because we don’t always have all day to get from, we want someone to know this is happening, to people actually knowing it’s happening, my job is to get a lot of information and then synthesize it, but when it comes time to actually write it down and get it out the door, it also needs to be done quickly, which is something you can learn in journalism school, and sometimes there’s more or less emphasis on it. But in my job in particular, if I take until three o’clock to actually get a press release out the door, it may as well just not have been written at all, because then people don’t know if anything happened, and I miss the news cycle. I can’t just treat it as a creative writing exercise, I need to be cognizant of the news cycle, and reporter’s schedules, and editing bad lines, and the fact that people sometimes need to get something to their editor by one o’clock, even if the publication doesn’t come out until the end of the day. I need to be able to meet as many deadlines as possible, and I need to be able to write something and get it out the door as fast as I can in a lot of circumstances. So yeah, being able to craft at least a serviceably good press release quickly is probably more important in this PR context than I would imagine a lot of others. Because if you have corporate PR that’s about, “Oh, we just released this product,” I mean, you can probably tell people one day just as much as the next effectively [laughter]. But in our case, it’s a little different.
Q: That’s great, thank you so much!
A: Yep, sure thing.