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Politics & Government

White House Communications Strategy Critiqued By Former Obama Official


And there is nothing easy about running communications at the White House. Every administration has its successes, also its failures. And for one view of how the new Trump administration is doing, we have Anita Dunn on the line. She was President Obama's communications director during his first term and also worked on his two presidential campaigns.

Anita Dunn, good morning.

ANITA DUNN: Good morning, David.

GREENE: So one of the things people focused on is the immigration ban. There are people in the Trump administration who have acknowledged that the rollout of that was far from perfect. If we, you know, set aside any policy differences you have with this administration and look really at communications, did you see something there that - commonality with other White Houses as they were getting going?

DUNN: There's always a shakedown period when you move into the White House after a successful campaign. It is very different. A campaign feels like it's a huge communications challenge. But it's actually a fairly controlled climate in which you're dealing with a relatively small press corps and a message of the day. Once you're in the United States government, you have the entire United States government. The rollout of the immigration executive order - which I have to say, David, I just don't agree with - is, you know - was a textbook example of what happens to new administrations.

They didn't do their homework on Capitol Hill to prepare their people there first. They didn't have a course of validators ready to go out in public to explain what it was. And most importantly, they didn't appear to have their own internal act together so that they were contradicting themselves. It's all part of what is usually a shakedown at the beginning of an administration. This one was extreme.

GREENE: So you say validators. I mean, I'm thinking about whenever we see a new White House policy come, you might see op-eds in newspapers and magazines. Is that all stuff that's coordinated?

DUNN: Yes, it is totally coordinated. And you want to do that because you want to show people that your policies have support. You want to have experts in their fields out there supporting the policies. You want to have people out there to help explain exactly what those policies are. So you want to have a chorus of voices out there beyond just the White House itself.

You also want to have your supporters on Capitol Hill fully briefed and ready to explain, both to their constituents and also to the broader public, why they support it and, again, what the policies are. This administration did none of that around this executive order. People were taken by surprise. That is never a good thing with a major policy change.

GREENE: I've seen some comparisons made to President Bill Clinton and the don't ask, don't tell policy for gay members of the U.S. military, that rollout. Do you see a similarity there?

DUNN: I thought there were some similarities. And again, it was early in the administration, when the Clinton administration moved quickly to fulfill a campaign pledge, not unlike this one, to remove the barriers for gay men and women serving in the military. It was something he talked about when he ran. But he moved very swiftly, without having really laid the groundwork. And again, you had a large public backlash where people didn't understand the policy. You had some people, certainly in the military and on Capitol Hill, who were opposed to it. And it ended up being watered down to a don't ask, don't tell policy, which actually no one was happy with.

GREENE: I suppose that - I hope it's safe to say that you were not working for a president who was on Twitter as much as this president, Donald Trump. Is that a genuinely new thing? And do you think that Trump's tweeting is helping or hurting his communications operation?

DUNN: You know, when we moved into the White House, Twitter was still in its infancy. And reporters were just beginning to use it. We didn't have a White House Twitter handle while I was there in 2009. You know, this president communicates directly with 24 million followers when he tweets, and it worked for him in the campaign. When something works for you in the campaign, it's really hard to say, well, it doesn't work for me any longer.

But it presents a unique challenge for his communications staff because it is communication that doesn't go through any of the White House filters that, in the past, have been applied to whatever the president was going to say so people could make sure what the president was going to say was factually accurate. They could make sure that it was consistent with the policies and, from a White House communications perspective, that it was consistent with what the White House was actually trying to communicate that day.

GREENE: So it's a matter of coordination - making sure that the tweets are actually coordinating with the message - that is the big challenge.

DUNN: That's true. But this is a president who got elected by doing it his way. And clearly, right now he's going to keep doing that, David.

GREENE: OK. Anita Dunn was White House communications director during President Obama's first term. She's the managing director at SKDKnickerbocker, a global public affairs agency.

Thanks so much.

DUNN: Thank you, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.