Fleischer’s predecessors admire his disciplined focus on the message. Michael D. McCurry served as Bill Clinton’s press secretary, and he often faced wild skirmishes with reporters trying to uncover juicy details amid the investigations into the president’s behavior. McCurry believed that Fleischer might well have discovered the key to dealing with the White House press corps, which is “to be very, very disciplined and treat the press like caged animals and only feed them on a regular schedule.”
The strategy worked for the president, and the media had little choice but to tolerate it. As Bob Schieffer, host of the CBS interview show Face the Nation, put it, “This is not an administration that’s interested in a happy press. . . . What they’re interested in is getting their message across.”
One sign of how successful the Bush administration has been in managing the message is its skill in creating news events. Every occasion is a media event. Every media event is carefully choreographed to frame and emphasize the administration’s message. For example, at some events, Bush speaks in front of a large banner that subtly repeats the same message over and over: “compassionate conservative,” “reformer with results,” or “no child left behind.” Since no serious White House reporter can avoid a major presidential event, there is almost no way to edit out the message. No matter how editors or reporters might choose to write the story, the message of the day is there for everyone to see. The same message, constantly repeated, tends to get through, relatively unfiltered by the media.
Ronald Reagan was the “great communicator.” Bush 41 was not nearly so polished, but he did win respect for his solid bearing in office. Bill Clinton loved the camera and it loved him. His aides grew increasingly polished at creating media-ready events. Despite George W. Bush’s limited oratorical gifts, no presidential team has been so effective at framing a message, refining that message to its essence, repeating the message until it got through, and using the media so effectively to talk to the American people—and the world.
The lesson from Team Bush is clear. Managing depends on message. Whether you are the commander in chief or an executive of a large corporation, messages matter a great deal. They set the tone in an organization, help to establish priorities, and play an essential role in an organization’s success. The moral for CEOs is: Make sure there’s a mechanism in place for you and your management team to get your message out. And don’t be afraid to repeat that message at every opportunity. Given the tremendous noise surrounding all communication, it’s hard to emphasize the message too much.