Breaking Through: How Political Leaders Communicate with the American People in Today’s Noisy, Fragmented, Polarized Media Environment

Led by Sarah Hurwitz – Thursday at 4:00 PM in L166


How can political leaders break through today’s noisy, fragmented, polarized media environment to communicate with the American people ?  How has our media landscape changed over the past few decades, and what kinds of communications are most effective today?  Over the course of the semester, we'll dive deep into communications strategy and tactics on presidential campaigns and in the White House – including press, speechwriting, opposition research, political advertising, social media and more.

Our guests will be accomplished political professionals, each of whom has done communications work at the highest level on presidential campaigns and in the White House.  Joining us either via Skype or in person, our guests will draw from their experiences on the campaign trail and at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, and they’ll share plenty of the harrowing, humorous and downright absurd war stories that make a life in politics so interesting – and so much fun. 

The goals of this study group are twofold.  First, to inform and inspire students.  I and each of our guests have seen firsthand the power of political candidates – and a President and First Lady – to lift people up and bring people together.  We’ve seen the profound impact that public policy – from the Affordable Care Act to the laws affecting LGBT rights – can have on people’s daily lives.  We have felt the pride of landing somewhere – anywhere – in the world in a big blue and white plane with “United States of America” stamped on its side and watching people lining the streets to catch a glimpse of our President and First Lady.  I will be asking our guests to share inspiring moments like these with our study group.

Second, I want students to understand that if I and our guests can have fulfilling careers in politics, they can too.  I still remember the anxiety I felt during my time at Harvard, terrified that every grade I got, every line I added – or didn’t add – to my resume, would absolutely determine my career in politics, and if I didn’t do everything perfectly, I would be a total failure.  I want students to know that nothing could be further from the truth.  There is virtually nothing they do now that they can’t undo later.  And success in politics isn’t about being perfect – it’s about working incredibly hard, taking terrifying risks, and making epic mistakes and recovering from them.  Most important of all, meaningful, enduring success in politics is about being a good person (seriously).  To drive these points home, I will ask our guests to talk not just about their successes – but about their failures – and I will do the same. 

In the end, I hope students walk away from this study group believing that – even with all the ups and downs, highs and lows – they can have an exciting, inspiring, impactful, joyful career in politics.

February 16

Introduction and Overview of Today’s Media Landscape

This week will start with a personal introduction and an overview of today’s media landscape.  What are the challenges presidents and presidential candidates face when trying to communicate with the American people?  How is today’s media environment different than it was just a few decades ago?  What are the implications of those changes for the quality of our national conversation about politics?

February 23

The Nuts and Bolts – Day-to-Day Communications Operations

Presidential campaigns and White Houses require massive press operations with dozens of staffers managing inquiries from hundreds of reporters and media outlets.  How does that all work?  How do you calmly handle the inevitable crises that can arise at any moment?  How do you work with reporters to get out a coherent message to the American people each day?

Guest Speaker
Eric Schultz – Principal Deputy White House Press Secretary, 2014-2017

March 2

The Power of “Soft” Media – From Ellen and Oprah, to People Magazine, to the Late Night Shows

Most Americans do not get their news – or get to know their political leaders – by reading the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal.  How do campaigns and administrations engage with so-called “soft” media, from Ellen and Oprah, to People Magazine, to the late night shows?  What are the advantages and disadvantages of getting a message out this way?

Guest Speaker:
Kristina Schake – Deputy Communications Director, 2016 Hillary campaign; Communications Director for First Lady Michelle Obama, 2010-2013 

March 9

The “Dark Arts” – Opposition Research (and Factchecking!)

Opposition research is a vital part of a campaign communications team – but did you know that there’s a research shop in the White House too? What exactly do researchers do?  How do they help presidents and presidential candidates reach and persuade the American people?

March 23

@POTUS/@Candidate – Social Media from the Campaign Trail to the White House

Social media was a driving force behind Barack Obama's successful campaign in 2008, and since then it has been an increasingly important part of both campaign and White House communications.  How can presidents and presidential candidates best use social media to reach the American people and people around the world?

Guest Speaker
Alex Wall, Director of Social Media - Hillary for America. Tanya Somanader (via Skype) - Director of Rapid Response & International Engagement, White House Digital Strategy Office

April 6

The Words they Speak – Speechwriting

What goes into writing a truly memorable and inspiring speech?  What are the challenges of trying to channel someone else’s voice?  What do you do when it’s 3:30am and you have writer’s block and need to get a draft of a speech to the President that day?

Guest Speaker
Cody Keenan – Director of White House Speechwriting, 2013-2017

April 13

Paid Media – Advertisements

Presidential candidates spend millions of dollars each election cycle on political ads.  What kind of ads are most effective?  Which particular ads had the biggest impact this past campaign cycle?  Do TV ads still matter in an era when a candidate can get so much free media?

April 20

From Running Strategy for a Campaign to Running Strategy for a Country – Transitioning from Campaign Strategist to White House Senior Adviser

The Chief Strategist on a presidential campaign oversees the communications strategy for the entire operation.  They're calling the shots on everything from the ads the candidate runs, to the speeches he or she gives, to the day-to-day approach to handling the press.  If a candidate manages to become president, they often replicate that role in the White House.  How does that transition work?  How do you craft a strategy to help your principal truly break through?

Guest Speaker
David Axelrod (via Skype) – Chief Strategist for Obama’s winning campaigns in 2008 and 2012; Senior Advisor to President Obama, 2009-2011