Joshua Kroon, Vice President, LEVICK
As Sarah Sanders prepares to leave the Trump Administration, there’s only one way to describe her tenure as press secretary: unprecedented.
From canceling the White House’s longstanding daily press briefing to comparing reporters to her three young children, Sarah Sanders was a press secretary who pushed the boundaries of the position. Mostly because Sanders was press secretary in arguably the most hostile environment in the job’s history.
To start, it’s no secret that Sanders served one of the most unorthodox presidents we’ve seen to date. Trump’s blunt rhetoric posed unique challenges to the role, with new comments from the president entering the news cycle every day.
Sanders’ calm and confident demeanor on the podium was the perfect balance to Trump’s histrionics. She developed a casual way to explain these one-off comments and shut down the press from making it a bigger story: “I think you guys are trying to make something out of nothing. He was simply making a comment, making a joke, and it was nothing more than that.”
Through the trials and tribulations of her time in the position, she stuck by her organization and kept consistent messaging like a skilled spokesperson. She embodied the core values of the Trump Administration and defended him with poise even when it was difficult to do so.
Not only was Sanders dealing with an unprecedented commander in chief; On the other side of the podium, she was dealing with a White House press corps less welcoming than ever.
Over her 2-year run as Trump’s top spokesperson, the press grew more and more charged. Instead of respect and order, chaos and aggression towards Sanders became the norm. Walking into daily press briefings was walking onto a battlefield where she would have to defend not only the president but also defend herself from unwarranted personal attacks.
Members of the press spoke over her and often yelled over her. They questioned her parenting, her ethics, and her accuracy. The briefing room became a daily session of harsh words and accusations, with Sanders repeating her defenses of the administration and calling out members of the press. It wasn’t so much informational as it was divisive.
So, Sanders stopped holding the daily briefing. This is yet another, and possibly the most important of her record-breaking actions. Trump and Sanders realized that the main thing coming out of the briefing was negative press coverage about the administration, and like any good communication professional would, Sanders did what she could to shut it down.
With daily briefings gone, she interacted with the media less, but with Trump’s tweets and communication style, the press and public often heard directly from the president, which created less of a need to hear from Sanders.
With all that being said, the daily press briefing is a good thing. It’s a long-standing tradition in U.S. history which is meant to foster trust and cooperation between the sitting president and the press who cover him. In a less polarizing political landscape, it’s a helpful communication tool where the press secretary can inform, and the press can question. It needs to be reinstated.
To bring back this ritual, the order needs to be restored. Civility needs to be relearned by both sides, and the adversarial relationship that currently exists needs to be repaired. Questions should be posed about the administration – not the spokesperson – and comments and opinions should be saved for the pages of the publications instead of said in the James Brady Briefing Room with aggression.
Although she was a controversial figure, Sarah Sanders’ abilities as a press secretary are unequivocal. The proof of her success comes through the simple fact that she lasted much longer than any before her. She was able to wrangle the press and shut down false stories all while remaining composed under immense pressure. She even made a few jokes here and there to ease the tension.
As Sarah Sanders prepares to depart from her role at the White House and a new target steps in, the restoration of the daily briefing will undoubtedly be considered. It would behoove both sides of the aisle to learn a lesson from Sanders’ legacy, tone down the theatrics, and try to cooperate.
About the Author: Joshua Kroon is a seasoned strategic communications professional with LEVICK Strategic Communications, headquartered in Washington, D.C. His work as a strategist and counselor has touched numerous issue areas, most notably government relations, international relations, defense, technology, and finance. He specializes in developing strategies that help advance efforts to catalyze broad impact through the sharing of effective ideas and practices.