PR News Q&A: Former White House Press Secretary Perino Talks PR Education, Fox and BP

Dana Perino, former White House press secretary in the George W. Bush Administration, is now best known as a political commentator for Fox News. But this fall she’s going back to school, as an adjunct faculty member of George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management for Strategic Public Relations. Perino will teach a master class in political communications on advocacy, politics and public affairs.

PR News caught up with Perino—herself a former undergraduate at Colorado State University who received a master’s in public affairs reporting at the University of Illinois Springfield—and asked her about the class, today’s communication students and her thoughts on outgoing BP CEO Tony Hayward.

PR News: Now that you’re going to be leading a communications class at GW, what is the one thing that you wish you would have learned as a student?

Dana Perino: I was under-informed about business, especially right out of college. My dad always told me to take business classes, and I thought, how boring. I took lots of communications and political classes instead. I loved to read and write and wasn't so at home with numbers. Now I realize that business classes weren't just about numbers, but about so much more. I encourage all young people to listen to my dad.

What advice would you give to students in planning their communications careers?

I was fairly rigid in my first years out of high school as to what I thought my life plan would be. As it turned out, most of the things in my plan didn't happen—it was the unexpected opportunities that got me to where I am today. And so another piece of advice I offer to young professionals is to have an open mind and a willing spirit to trust that just because something isn't in your five-year plan, it doesn't mean it isn't a great opportunity.

What will students be able to take from your class? Are you able to name names of some colleagues who might be guest speakers?

Perino: I hope that they enjoy a rich discussion about political communications today. Just in the time that I've been working in media relations, I've gone from almost exclusively phone contact with reporters and colleagues to almost exclusively e-mail communications. Technology has greatly changed the business—in good and bad ways.

I'll decline to name my guest speakers, but I will say I’ll have a wide variety of guests, and one of the classes I'm most excited about highlights the talent and skills of photojournalists. I have always felt they are underappreciated. I plan to have an evening with a longtime political photojournalist that has covered several administrations.

I’m sure you’ve worked with quite a few interns (and graduates) both in and out of the White House. What skills and traits do you like to see in people just starting out in communications?

Perino: I like to work with interns—especially ones that are enthusiastic and willing to pitch in. I like a sense of humor. I like punctuality. And I like someone that is willing to speak up and give voice to their ideas—sometimes they make a contribution they weren't expecting. And internships are critical to future job prospects because employers want to hire people who can do something, not people who have just studied what to do.

What is more challenging, facing the press in a daily White House briefing or serving up a compelling sound bite as a contributor on Fox News?

Perino: Hands-down the most challenging part of my career will have been being the White House press secretary. The good news is, the rest of my life I'll be able to say, well, at least this is easier than that was.

Being as well-versed in going in front of the media as you are, if you could have given Tony Hayward of BP some media training advice during the Gulf oil leak crisis, what would it have been?

Perino: Fess up early and often. Be honest about what you know and don't know. Defer to others in your organization if they are more skilled in communicating than you are. And stay off the yacht.