For the 67th episode of the Journalism History podcast, host Teri Finneman spoke to Lisa Burns about her new book, Media Relations & The Modern First Lady: From Jacqueline Kennedy to Melania Trump, and the successes and failures of first ladies’ media strategies.
Lisa Burns is a professor of media studies at Quinnipiac University. She also is the author of First Ladies and the Fourth Estate: Press Framing of Presidential Wives.
This episode is sponsored by Taylor & Francis, publisher of Journalism History.
Lisa Burns: [Music plays] So, I think with a lot of the things that modern first ladies, including if we think about Melania Trump, a lot of the same criticism and issues that she’s dealing with today, Martha Washington was dealing with the same things way back when.
Teri Finneman: Welcome to Journalism History, a podcast that rips out the pages of your history books to re-examine the stories you thought you knew, and the ones you were never told.
I’m Teri Finneman, and I research media coverage of women in politics.
Nick Hirshon: And I’m Nick Hirshon, and I research the history of New York sports.
Ken Ward: And I’m Ken Ward, and I research the journalism history of the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains.
Teri Finneman: And together, we are professional media historians, guiding you through our own drafts of history. Show transcripts are available at journalism-history.org/podcast.
This episode is sponsored by Taylor and Francis, the publisher of our academic journal, Journalism History.
They’re among the most famous women in the world and a constant focus of media attention. First ladies dating back to Martha Washington have dealt with the public’s fascination and scorn for everything from their fashion to their activism. But what about the media relation strategies of the first ladies themselves? How do they try to navigate the complex world of media attention?
In this episode, first ladies’ expert Lisa Burns discusses her new book, Media Relations and the Modern First Lady: From Jacqueline Kennedy to Melania Trump, that she assembled with a team of first lady scholars. From Martha Washington’s carriage rides to Melania Trump’s famous jacket, we explore the successes and pitfalls of being in the national limelight. Lisa, welcome to the show. Why did you want to write this book? So, what is it about first lady media relations that matters?
Lisa Burns: Well, much of my research has focused on press coverage of presidential spouses. Of course, that means first ladies here in the United States. And that coverage plays a huge role in shaping the public image of these women. And while journalists can wield a lot of control, these women and their staffs also play a part, obviously, in constructing their public image. So, I knew always sort of as I was doing my other work on first ladies that eventually I wanted to kind of flip it and look at it from the other perspective. Look at it from the first lady’s perspective and that of their communications teams.
And I think also because when I teach political communication, I teach it from a strategic communication perspective. I’m always kind of thinking about strategy. I was also a big Scandal fan in terms of TV shows. So, I’m always kind of thinking about, like, who’s behind the scenes and who’s arranging this image of events, and, you know, why did they decide to go with this publication for an interview or whatever it might be?
But no one’s really looked at that, to be honest. I mean, even in a lot of the research on first ladies, when they talk about the media coverage, we’re just looking at the media coverage. We’re not really looking at kind of the very deliberate things that a lot of these women and their staffs are doing to get the kind of coverage that they’re getting. So, I was super excited to do this project. However, I also knew, even just doing Jackie Kennedy through whoever, ’cause I originally started this idea when Michelle Obama was in office. I knew that I didn’t have time to write it, at least by myself. ‘Cause it would just take way too long.
So, I decided to instead be the editor of the collection, write the introduction, and then I was so lucky to recruit this great group of scholars. Because also this is a really an interdisciplinary work, it overlaps, it’s not just first lady studies, it’s also history. It’s journalism and media history. It’s political science. It’s public relations. A lot of it is public relations.
I knew I wanted to have those different perspectives that scholars other than myself could bring to it. So, I ended up with this really great team of people that put together this book.
In terms of your second question, why does any of this matter? Like, who cares? I think there’s a couple reasons. First, a thing about presidential spouses is they’re going to be in the media spotlight whether they want to be or not. And they really have no choice in the matter. And that’s where media relations comes in. It’s really up to them. Am I going to use this spotlight? How am I going to use it? And because of that, or on the flipside sort of, do I want to retain my privacy? How am I going to do that? So, they need to be strategic communicators, and I really wanted to come at first lady studies from that angle because I don’t really think that anyone has done that before as their specific focus.
So, we’re really looking at in these different chapters, you know, whether they wanted to use their first lady platform to advocate for causes and be an asset to their husband. Or if they wanted to preserver their privacy, how do they do that while still handling the press coverage that’s going to be inevitable? And so, the various chapters, I think, really nicely kind of tell the stories of these different way that the women and their teams, who for the most part were also women, how they worked together to come up with these strategies. And then also what was their relationship with, once again, the primarily women reporters who are assigned to cover the first lady?
Teri Finneman: Let’s start with media coverage of our first first lady, Martha Washington. How was she treated by the press? And did she seek media attention?
Lisa Burns: Martha Washington I think is, is fascinating because I don’t think initially she was thinking about media coverage in any way. But when George asked her to come to New York, because obviously, he’s a dude and can’t hold social functions on his own,
he asked her ’cause she wanted to stay at Mount Vernon. And he’s like, “No, no, no. Please come to New York. I need you to hold these, like, they want me to hold teas and receptions and I need a woman to do that.” So, when she makes the journey from Mount Vernon to New York, she’s surprised to find out that, like, in all these local stops that she’s making on the way, that there will be someone from what was considered the newspapers back then. So, it’s probably someone from the local printer comes out and, and they’re talking to her, and there are these big crowds. By the time she gets to New York, there’s all this media coverage in the New York newspapers.
And she’s very flattered at first. And so, I think she does kind of realize that she is going to get this media attention. And Maurine Beasley did this chapter on what I call “from Martha to Mamie.” And she said that Martha recognized that doing these social events were going to get comments in the press.
So, when she structured them, she was really thinking about what people would say as well as just interpersonally, you know, what are they going to say when they go home and talk about the Washingtons’ event? And then she also did some active PR in terms of sending out some engravings to Federalist newspapers. Not – it wasn’t necessarily her personally, but she approved them under the title Lady Washington. The thing is, these engravings featured a much younger woman than Martha was at the time. She was also wearing this thing that was sort of like a queenly headdress.
And of course, the anti-Federalist newspapers got a hold of this and started ripping into her. In fact, just like with presidents, it didn’t take long for Martha to get criticized. Their social events were too courtly, and they were trying to ape royalty. She used a carriage with liveried horsemen. And that bothered people. So, once this coverage gets negative, she starts to get very negative.
And that – she curtailed her public activities, and of course, she’s very famous for making a comment in one of her letters to a family member that she felt like she was a state prisoner that she couldn’t even go out of the house. And a lot of that was because not just public attention, but it was because of the media attention she got. So, I think with a lot of the things that modern first ladies, including if we think about Melania Trump, a lot of the same criticism and issues that she’s dealing with today, Martha Washington was dealing with the same things way back when.
Teri Finneman: Your book primarily focuses on Jackie Kennedy through Melania Trump. So, let’s focus on Kennedy, the first to appoint a press secretary and establish press policy in the modern age of television. Kennedy and the press corps had a very difficult relationship throughout her whole life, of course, not just when she was first lady. What are some of the things we can learn from what she did well and what she didn’t with media relations?
Lisa Burns: Well, Jackie Kennedy gets the credit for having the first press secretary. I will point out that technically it was – she was the first person to have someone with the title of press secretary. Pamela Turnure was really just another social secretary, wasn’t really equipped for the job, not to take anything away from her. But, because of that, I think that it was recognized by the – by Kennedy’s term that because of all the attention they received during the campaign that they would need someone specifically to focus on media requests.
And Jackie hated the press. Particularly, she hated the women reporters assigned to cover her, and I don’t think hate is too strong of a term that I’m using here. She called them harpies. She suggested once that they should be hidden behind potted plants at the state dinners because she didn’t want to look at them and thought they weren’t too much to look at. One time Helen Thomas actually tried to sort of chase her down through a garage. She was, like, running away.
And a comment was, “She ran a lot faster than you might expect from someone who looked like she did.” So, she had this very adversarial relationship, and her policy is – Jody Natalle wrote the chapter on Kennedy, and she said that her press strategy was dubbed, “The polite brushoff.” Turnure was instructed to give reporters minimum information with maximum politeness. And that’s why when you look back at it, we have very few stories that quote Jackie Kennedy.
We don’t have a lot that’s in her voice that is, is her comments on something. But, that doesn’t mean that she wasn’t media savvy. Obviously, she had a degree in journalism, and she worked as a reporter when she was young. She was most comfortable though when she could control her media coverage. So, I would say she was very savvy about public relations. So, when she did things like the CBS tour of the White House to promote her restoration project or when she went on international trips, she’s decided instead of speaking to the American reporters, she spoke to the international press corps –
because she knew she would get very favorable coverage from them.
And then, of course, she famously orchestrated her husband’s funeral and created the entire Camelot myth with her Life magazine interview that she did with Ted White a few days after the funeral. So, I think in many ways her, her strategy was successful for the time period. Because she relied a lot of images, or relied a lot on images, which she could control. So, we know now that she thought really in detail about the clothing that she wore for these different events because she knew she would be photographed.
So, she also knew she wasn’t giving any comments. So, a lot of times what the reporters had to run, especially for the society columns, all they could really run was a picture of her and then a story about the event. So, she wanted to be able to sort of control whatever part of that story she could of – I also think this idea of using things like the, the CBS televised tour or her calling Life magazine and agreeing to the sit-down,
she was much more in control of those types of media situations as opposed to a press conference or just speaking to the reporters off the cuff. The question is though whether the strategy would’ve continued to work if her husband hadn’t been assassinated and if it had been sort of a normal four- to eight-year term in the White House. Because there was a lot of negative coverage of her. We don’t think about it today because the more positive coverage is what’s survived. But, I think things might’ve been really different if her husband’s administration hadn’t ended the way it did.
Teri Finneman: You mentioned that you were inspired by Liz Carpenter in her role establishing the first lady media relations with Lady Bird Johnson. Discuss how their strategies differed from prior first ladies.
Lisa Burns: Well, I will have to admit, I will try to keep this short. Because I could talk about Liz Carpenter all day long.
As you know, I also do research on Lady Bird Johnson. I had the opportunity to meet Liz Carpenter. I went to a presentation that she did. This woman was hysterical. I also recommend, for those of you who are just fans of history or, you know, presidents, read Ruffles and Flourishes, which is Liz Carpenter’s memoir.
This is basically, I think, one of the best books ever written about life in the White House and giving you that perspective of what it’s like to work with both a president and first lady. So, so, Liz Carpenter was – actually, she was a former reporter. She came on to the Johnson campaign staff, ended up staying, working for President Johnson when – started when he was vice president. And then when he became president, she actually approached Lady Bird and asked her if she could be her press secretary.
And basically said to her, “You know, I think we need to do things a bit differently than they did in the Kennedy administration.” Everybody knew about sort of the polite brush-off policy.
Liz was a reporter, so was Lady Bird. Lady Bird also had a degree in journalism. Gotta love all these first ladies with their degrees in journalism. So, she really understood what reporters’ needs were and working together with Johnson and the really small staff that they had, they basically came up with these different events to generate media coverage. So, Lady Bird was a very active first lady.
And some of it was in support of her husband’s work. So, she did these famous tours to support his different initiatives. And when she did, she would always bring reporters with her. And reporters were given the opportunity to, you know, not only speak to her, and she would give them comments. They would also be there when she talked to different people. And there were times when if she knew someone didn’t hear the person’s comment, she would actually have them repeat it because she knew that, you know, she could see some of the, you know, reporters, you know, furiously writing things down.
When she did the 1964 Whistle Stop Tour through the South in the wake of the Civil Rights Act, she brought – again, most of the people on that train were reporters. And Liz Carpenter’s job was kind of wrangling them, which she called – she likened it sort of, you know, herding cats. The idea of basically keeping them fed, clothes was on them, but basically giving them news. And so, Lady Bird and Liz worked together to really constantly keep the White House press corps informed.
Of course, because of that, I think in some ways they set these sort of unrealistic standards for the, unfortunately, the women that followed in these positions. Because they were a well-oiled machine, and the one thing reporters knew is that they could call Liz at any time. Liz did complain about this in her book. She talks about the fact that especially Helen Thomas calling her sometimes 10, 12 times a day with stuff that she’s like, “Liz [Helen], you know I don’t know that.”
But, hey, you know, she was able to – or sorry, Helen. But, she was able to give her an answer. They were always ready and available. And I think that especially as someone who comes from a background in journalism, that really is inspiring. And in some ways I think has become the gold standard for first lady media relations.
Teri Finneman: Carpenter referred to managing the interests of the president and first lady and then also that of the press as the Hell Department. So, talk about the difficult of the role of a press secretary.
Lisa Burns: Yeah. I think that pretty much sums it up. Because in some way, you’re serving two masters. You are, you are serving and ultimately you really only have one because you are serving the first lady or the president and his family, by extension. But, then on the flipside, you also are dealing with, with the media. You are dealing with reporters. You’re dealing with producers. And if you want to continue to have positive coverage and have good relationships, of course you want to keep them happy as well.
So, Liz likened it to dodging the raindrops during a storm that, you know, you’re always trying to – sort of you’re on the move trying to make everybody happy. And ultimately while you serve at the pleasure of the first lady and the president, again, if you want to be successful you have to have that good relationship. So, when you look at particularly what the first ladies’ press secretaries have done over the years, they basically do just about everything. They manage all of the first lady’s communications. So, often speech writers are also within this office and sometimes early on were the press secretary.
You have managing of events, like I said, all the events that Lady Bird Johnson did, Liz had a staff of, I think, five people. They organized those Whistle Stop Tours. Those tours of the state parks. These massive tours with, you know, 20, 50, 100 reporters trailing along with them. They were basically responsible for organizing all of that.
So, they had to be event planners. As Liz complained, she also ended up being a wedding planner with two presidential, you know, daughters’ weddings during her tenure. They have to deal with reporters’ inquiries, which can be constant. They’re trying to build these relationships with different outlets. So, really these people in the communications department for first ladies are doing really a little bit of everything. And this is why you see this bleed over between the social secretaries and the press secretaries. Even today, there’s still not always a lot of division within the office because so much of this ultimately comes back to these public events that the women do.
Teri Finneman: Moving ahead to Barbara Bush, she faced some brutal early press coverage. Uh, your book notes that media pundits criticized Bush’s physical appearance and matronly, off-the-rack outfits. Writing about how she looked more like her husband’s mother than his wife.
And Bush herself talked about how much she and her family had suffered from rumor, innuendo, and personal insults which therefore led her to be quote, unquote media smart. Uh, the chapter in your book notes that there were offensive and defensive media relation strategies. So, talk more about what that meant.
Lisa Burns: Well, first, Molly Wertheimer has written extensively about Barbara Bush, so I was very lucky to get her as the author for this chapter. And I think what’s fascinating about Barbara Bush, I do think she was one of the best in terms of handling media relations, is that she did have to deal with a bit of both, especially think about all this coverage during the campaign. You know, can you imagine just the sort of the negative things being said about your looks and, you know, your body type, things that today we would call body shaming? You know, it, it’s readily done to celebrities, particularly first ladies.
So, she either could’ve been really bitter about this or instead – and I think this was a really smart move on her part – she decided, you know, how can we, you know, sort of take advantage of this and control the narrative more than what has happened during the campaign? So, the two types of strategies, defensive is when – and this is in general, it applies to, to other, you know, any sort of PR relation, defensive is having to respond to media reports or having to apologize for something that you did or said.
So, with Barbara Bush, there were a few times, like, she makes comments about automatic weapons, opposing them, when of course it turns out her husband actually supported them. So she had to pull back on that. Her stance on abortion rights she had to keep to herself because her husband was pro-life, and she could not talk about publicly being pro-choice. And so there are a few things that sort of had to apologize for.
But, instead, mainly her and Anna Perez, who she was really close with, her press secretary, decided to take this offensive strategy, a little bit more like Lady Bird Johnson, where they decided to actively seek press coverage and highlight her agenda. So, Bush decided and made it very clear there were certain things she would not talk about. So, she would not talk about the family. She would not talk about their children or grandchildren that, you know, don’t ask her about, like, especially her health. So, we know now, sort of in hindsight, that a lot of issues with her hair going white at a young age, with her weight, is related to a health condition, a thyroid condition with her weight.
But, that was something that she decided, you know, for a while she didn’t want to tell the press about that. It was none of her – their business. But she ultimately decided this is something that a lot of women have that a lot of women suffer with this, I’m going to tell my story. Much like Betty Ford did with talking about her breast cancer. So, she decided to, to really control the narrative.
So, you have things like her being photographed holding a baby born with HIV at a time when there was such a stigma around this. And actually, she was doing this before Princess Diana was photographed doing the same thing. So, she was really sort of setting the standard about saying, you know, it is okay to show compassion and to touch someone who has HIV or AIDS.
And I think one of the, the biggest events during her tenure had a bit of both of this offensive and defensive strategy – and that was the Wellesley speech. So, for people who don’t remember this, famously she was asked to be the commencement speaker at Wellesley and a lot of the women in the senior class protested this saying they didn’t want someone who is just a wife to be their commencement speaker, since these were all young, professional women looking to go into careers.
So, she could’ve backed down from the event completely, decided not to. Instead, what her and Anna Perez do is craft, I think, one of the most brilliant speeches ever delivered.
And what she really does is she responds to the criticism directly of the students who protested her by saying that she understands their perspective, that she respects where they’re coming from. But, then because she related to them, she then found a way to really get them on her side and to talk about how we need, as women, to value all women’s experiences. And so, that my experience, speaking for Barbara Bush, as an older woman from a generation who we did, you know, instead of having a career we married, and I made my career my husband’s career. But that I was still able to do these things that I cared about. I was still able to, to advocate for causes.
But that you have these opportunities that are great. That, you know, that you can be anything. By speaking to them on their level and respecting them, I think – well, it was clear that by the end of the speech she had them on her side. She got a standing ovation.
You know, people talk about the speech. It’s still taught in classes today about just how well she responded to her audience. And to me, I think that’s one of the best examples of taking that offensive strategy because some of the best media coverage she received was in the wake of the speech. So, there was a lot of kind of negative critical coverage leading up it. She and her team managed to totally turn things around after the speech was given.
Teri Finneman: So much has been written and said about Hillary Clinton already. So, let’s focus more so on her press secretaries when she was first lady. What were their strategies? And considering, you know, years later as first lady this framing that she got at that time still lingers today. What lessons about first lady media relations can be learned from this?
Lisa Burns: Well, I will say the Clinton chapter was going to be tough no matter what because, like you said, it was Hillary Clinton. A ton has been written about her already.
But I will give credit. Anne Mattina, who did this chapter, really had to do some digging in the archival documents to find out information about Lisa Caputo and Marsha Berry, the two women who served as Hillary’s press secretaries. And as you mentioned, that’s really what she was looking for is, what was that strategy behind the scenes? And so, by going through these documents, what she found is that, you know, very clearly from the very, very beginning, from the beginning of the campaign Clinton was always on the defensive.
And I just mentioned the offensive and defensive strategies. They were always basically in a defensive mode. So, they were dealing with – a lot of this was out of their control. So, one, it was kind of this negative coverage that was already being generated about Clinton during the campaign. There were the scandals that dogged her husband’s administration from his, you know, his infidelity multiple times to Whitewater to the impeachment proceedings.
Then, of course, on top of that, when Hillary’s doing something on her own, they give her health care, which as we all know, again, especially in hindsight, it was not going to succeed during this time. So, in many ways she was sort of put in as the fall person. And the failure of health care then ends up sort of being on her. So, you have this kind of very charge, politically charged situation that she walks into. They question, you know, who’s the first lady to be heading up this taskforce on health care reform?
And it fails, and she largely gets the blame, even though, again, I don’t care who you would put in charge of that, it would’ve failed during that historical moment. And so, when, when looking at kind of all the — basically Caputo and Berry were always dealing with sort of how do we deflect from all this negative coverage that’s already out there? And because there was so much being written about Clinton, it was really hard for them to get any sort of positive coverage or any coverage of the work that she was doing into the press.
They were a little more successful in the second term when they did that whole softening of her image, which by the way, a lot of that did not come out of Hillary’s office. It came out of Bill’s and his people wanted to soften her and, like, not let her speak, for example, at the DNC in 1996, not necessarily a good decision. But, I digress. But I think the biggest takeaway that, that Anne found in her chapter is that Clinton was much more comfortable dealing with local media and magazines than she was with either the national press or with television.
And I think if you look back at her coverage, this becomes apparent immediately. But, unfortunately, they could never quite figure out how to get the strategy to work, particularly in the 1990s. I think this strategy would be much more successful today than it, you know, than it was back then. Especially with things like having the use of social media now that they didn’t have then.
And, you know, Clinton had this adversarial relationship with [the press], and ultimately, you know, obviously her team didn’t learn anything from some of the negative coverage that, that Kennedy and some of the others like Pat Nixon received. Because they never tried to get over that adversarial relationship with the national press corps and with the White House press corps. And because they built these walls. And I will say, in their defense, it’s understandable. When you think of all the vitriol and negative coverage that was out there, you kind of can’t blame Clinton for not liking these people and not wanting to talk to them.
But, unfortunately, by putting up this wall that only created more resentment, which in turn led to more critical coverage. Also, by not speaking to the national press, I mean, I think in her first 18 months she only put out four press releases from her office. I mean, that’s, you know, when you consider the time period and also the fact that she’s working on health care, the fact that they weren’t communicating about it also led to, you know, think about the negative health care [coverage], all of this was being done behind closed doors.
It’s because they didn’t share this information with the press. If they had done so – I’m not saying the health care would’ve passed, but maybe it would’ve been reported on differently if they had shared information with the media. And this, obviously, even followed her through the 2016 race. You know, we’ve always seen in some ways, you know, Clinton being very guarded when she talks to particularly a large gathering of press or at a press conference or when she’s in a public setting.
And what’s really sad about this is when you, when you read about Clinton and even when you go through these files from Berry and Caputo you get a very different picture of her behind the scenes. Like, these, these interviews she would do with local radio – like, she loved going on local radio stations and talking to people. She loved sitting down with local reporters or even local TV because she felt more comfortable. She felt like they weren’t on the attack.
And many times, of course, they aren’t going to be as critical in terms of their coverage compared to the national press. So, if they only would’ve found a way to either kind of get over that animosity and get beyond that – and that’s why I mentioned earlier if Kennedy had a full eight years, I wonder if she would’ve gotten some of the same kind of pushback that Clinton got for not being accessible, for not being available to reporters.
So, I do think every first lady, at least that’s followed Clinton, – here’s the positive takeaway – they’ve learned what not to do. There’s a lot of stuff not to do and lessons you can learn. And one is that if you want to retain your privacy, which is understandable, you still have to give something to the media because they expect it. They want it, and if you don’t give it to them, they’re going to fill that void with whatever they come up with.
So, do you want to try to control that narrative? Or do you want them to do that? Particularly as we’re getting into the era of cable TV news and talk radio. You know, you want to have some control of that narrative.
So, I think we see that Laura Bush and especially Michelle Obama, you know, could Michelle Obama have been involved in health care reform under her husband’s administration given her background? Absolutely. Was she smart enough to say, “There’s no way I’m going near that.”? Of course. I mean, because in many ways she learned lessons from what happened to Clinton.
Teri Finneman: So, speaking of Michelle Obama, she was really the first first lady in the era of social media. So, how has social media shifted first lady media relations?
Lisa Burns: I think we’ve seen a huge shift in terms of, you know, a lot of what I’ve mentioned is it’s about controlling the narrative. Or at least having your side out there and then ultimately, of course, journalists have a lot of power in terms of how they choose to frame a story, how they choose to tell it. With social media, in many ways you’re kind of going over heads of the press and going directly to the public.
So, you are now completely in control of this message. And that gives these women and their teams a lot more power than they had in the past. Because in the past, in many ways, you had to go through the media. You had to deal with journalists in some way. So, even if you were doing what were considered sort of soft media or more friendly interviews, like say a women’s magazine, you still had to talk to the reporter. The reporter ultimately still wrote up the story.
So, other than speeches, which of course only a certain limited number of people actually hear a speech in person or watch a speech. Most of it is, what they know about speeches, are, again, covered in the media. Here you have social media where you can get directly to the people. Now you have YouTube where you can actually put speeches out there, so someone can actually watch a full speech. And I think what we saw from Michelle Obama’s team is she brought in a lot of younger, skilled people who really understood what is the latest social media.
Because, of course, all of this is developing during her time period. So, she’s the first first lady to use Twitter and then she’s also using Vine, which of course now has come and gone since then, of – she’s using Instagram. She’s willing to experiment Snapchat by the end of her term. You know, she’s willing to, to do that experimentation, and she also had a team that she trusted to help her with that. So, you know, the whole sort of — one of the kind of famous sillier things that she did was the, the Turnip for What? Sort of, you know, kind of the response to that that everybody was doing. That sort of Vine that she posted.
And the idea of her taking the turnip and kind of doing the play on the turnup was, again, genius if you think about it. And, not only did they use social media in this way, I think we see with Michelle Obama, she also really was a television first lady. She and her team found strategic ways to get her message out through unconventional media.
So, we’ve had other first ladies that appeared on Sesame Street, for example. But Michelle Obama is there talking about healthy eating as part of her health initiative. And the White House garden. So, she’s talking to Elmo about planting a garden, and that was promoting the White House garden that she put in. The healthy lunches, the get – the Let’s Move program. She appears on everything from, you know, Top Chef to, you know, just the most sort of bizarre things you would never even expect, she was willing to do.
And she was also super comfortable doing interviews. So, you know, when you saw her, especially during the campaign sitting down with, you know, any of the Jimmys. So, Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel, or she’s doing Stephen Colbert, James Corden. She did, you know, she did Carpool Karaoke. I mean, come on. Like, who does that? Michelle Obama does. And now that’s why I’m actually not surprised that she has a podcast dropping.
She’s still finding ways to use her social media in a positive way. So, I think in many ways, you know, 20 years from now we’re going to look back at Michelle Obama and really look at the ways that she was able to transform first lady media relations. But, of course, that doesn’t mean that everybody is following her example, as we see with the current administration.
Teri Finneman: Yeah. So, the Melania Trump chapter in your book is titled, Media Relations for an Embattled First Lady. So, what are strategies that you think she has actually done well? And then what strategies have been problematic?
Lisa Burns: Good question. So first, the title, all credit goes to Tammy Vigil, who came up with that title and has written a lot about Melania Trump. And you would think, she only covers the first two years in her chapter, sort of based on when we were working on this book, and there was still a lot to talk about.
In terms of what she has done well, mmm, not a whole lot in those first two years. I think we’ve seen some improvement. I think that in many ways Melania is going back to the Jackie Kennedy strategy of the polite brushoff of the, you know, minimal information with maximum politeness. Although, Stephanie Grisham’s not always the most polite person in certain circumstances, and in fact, she’s been very adversarial with the press. So, they kind of even dropped the politeness factor out of it.
I do think that we’ve seen some improvements with Melania’s use of social media. So, maybe she is starting to look at Michelle Obama’s example, and she just recently in the pandemic we started to see her promoting wearing of masks very early on. This is in, like, April. We see her retweeting the CDC and, and Dr. Fauci as opposed to retweeting some of the people that her husband is retweeting.
So, she’s also trying to talk to different communities about the importance of staying healthy and wearing masks and, and following the recommendations. So, I give her a lot of credit for that. I think that’s definitely a shift in tone. It’s also making her a bit more proactive than she was at first. We have to remember that her first year was spent primarily in New York. You know, she wasn’t even living in DC, so she’s not even in that bubble with the Washington press corps in the same way that, that other women in this position were.
And unfortunately, I think what we saw in her first few years was this notion of the adversarial relationship that her husband has was carried over into her office. Not necessarily by her, but by her staff. And so, you know, Stephanie Grisham actually makes history becoming at one point the press secretary for both the president and the first lady.
But I think that tells you a lot about the fact that Grisham really was supporting the president’s agenda and not necessarily working for Melania and supporting whatever her agenda might be. And I think that the first lady’s communication team needs to have their focus on the first lady. They need to think about, you know, what does she want to do with this position? What does she want to promote herself? And too often what we got was the same kind of adversarial relationship.
The biggest example, of course, in fact I even open the book with this because how could I not? Um, it’s the jacket. So, let’s just talk about the jacket for a moment. We all know the jacket I’m talking about, you know, about I Don’t Care, Do You? When she is traveling to visit immigrant children who have been detained at the border, and we know at this point there are stories about children in cages and these awful conditions in detention centers.
This I really don’t care attitude. The fact that anybody let her walk out of the White House with that jacket on still boggles my mind. I mean, where was her staff? Why did someone not rip that off of her body and say no? On the other hand, she’s a grown adult and also someone who very – she knows very well how to use clothes. As a former model, I think she’s very thoughtful of what she wears in many cases. So, she clearly, you know, put on this jacket and walked out of the house with it on and knew that there were going to be reporters there and knew that it was going to be photographed and knew that with social media it would be widely published.
Then to say that Grisham’s first response was, it’s just a jacket and shame on you, media, for talking about this. She’s focusing on really important things at the border and in many ways this was a missed opportunity. That border visit was designed, I think, to show that someone in administration cared that there was someone who was reaching out and talking to these families and sort of checking on the conditions.
And trying to show the sort of positive sides of, of what was happening at the border. Uh, and again, whether you agree with that or not is a different conversation, but it was an opportunity to show, you know, use her in a way that other first ladies have been very successful in kind of that softer side or softening their husband’s stances on things, being more compassionate. But, the story was not about her visit at all. The story became about the jacket. And even today when people think back on it, all they think about is the jacket.
That to me defines Melania Trump’s, you know, tenure so far, and I worry that that will sort of be the thing that ultimately defines her even years from now. And a lot of that I blame on just poor media relations of not really thinking these things through and having a clear strategy on what is the best way to communicate.
Teri Finneman: So, you gave us a really solid tip a few minutes ago, and then of course they’ve been sprinkled throughout. But, to kind of summarize, what are the main takeaways we can learn from first ladies’ media relation strategies as far as how to be successful?
Lisa Burns: Well, as I like to argue, because even though my area is presidential spouses, I really think that these women and their media coverage and their media relation strategies says – it really is applicable to many different areas, particularly celebrity and celebrity culture, how celebrities interact with the media. The biggest takeaways for me is that first and foremost, you know, you really need to have a strategy.
Going into this position, you are in the public spotlight whether you want to be or not, and if you want to retain your privacy, which is very understandable, particularly if you have kids, young kids in the White House, the beast still needs to be fed, the media is still there. You’re going to be covered just because you are in the White House.
So, how are you going to deal with this? This even goes back to – it was actually Edith Roosevelt, Teddy Roosevelt’s wife, who sent out pictures of their family because she was, you know, tired reporters were always asking. And she didn’t want to talk to the press, you know, so she sent out photos. These are strategies that still work today. So, first is, you know, have this strategy. If you want to be more private then be very selective in the types of events that you are going to do.
Michelle Obama was actually a very private first lady. She did a lot to protect her privacy and the privacy of her daughters because of how young they were when they entered the White House. And yet, because she was so strategic in – she was still visible. She was still out there in the media; we didn’t feel like we were really missing anything. In fact, we feel like we know the Obamas really well. And I think a lot of us would say we also know a lot of stuff about the girls, even though when you think back on it, you saw them sometimes but not a lot.
You didn’t hear from them. But it was because of the strategy that they gave us just enough to keep, you know, public satisfied, to keep the press satisfied. But they also retained their privacy, so that was a strategy. You know, and I think the biggest thing then, the second thing is, know where you’re comfortable as a communicator. And this is advice though applies to anybody, whether you’re in business, whether you’re a celebrity. Are you comfortable doing interviews? Are you really good off the cuff? Are you good on TV?
Michelle Obama, great on TV. Laura Bush found out she was really comfortable doing radio and then famously does two different presidential radio addresses. Are you more comfortable in speaking situations? So, again, I’ll use Laura Bush. She would famously open almost every speech early on by saying that her husband basically promised her that she would never have to give a speech in public, and she’s basically been giving speeches in public her entire life because she married him.
But she does a lot of those speeches in small groups and groups that are mainly women or organizations that she has a connection to. They found out where she was comfortable. So, she doesn’t like doing the big mass speeches, but she is an incredible speaker when you put her in a smaller room. No surprise. She’s a former teacher and librarian. She – if you give her that same kind of setup, she was very comfortable. So, the communication staff, particularly the press secretary, needs to figure out, you know, where is this woman most comfortable? And then how do we get her into those situations to deliver her message?
And the final thing I would say is you have to have a good team and a team that you trust. And that trust needs to be both ways. So, the most successful first ladies have been ones that have hired communication staff that have had a background in either journalism or public relations. Because those people understand – they understand the media. They know what reporters want and need. They understand deadlines. They understand different types of media.
From the PR perspective, they do understand things like event planning, story placement, how to present messages. For the people who brought in others, press secretaries who were more family friend, you know, friends of the campaign, they often found themselves kind of having this steep learning curve, and it made it really difficult for both the staff and for the first lady. Oftentimes we see this with Nixon, a bit with Ford, a little bit with Reagan, particularly in her first four years. These – the people didn’t really have as much of an understanding of how to deal with the press and then that, that ends up sort of hurting the first lady in terms – and like I said, you really could apply that to any situation.
So, the – you really need to trust your team, and you need to, to know each other and, and to have this really solid relationship.
And if you do that, if you have that kind of trust, then I think you can really put that strategy that I talked about, that communication strategy into play.
Teri Finneman: So, just giving us a quick list here, which first ladies would you say have been most effective at managing media relations?
Lisa Burns: So, given this a lot of thought. Clearly my number one in many ways it’s in some ways sort of a tie, and it’s kind of bookending. It would be Johnson and Obama. You know, Lady Bird with, with Liz Carpenter, like I said, in many ways they set a very high bar, and kind of the gold standard for media relations, and they were just so incredibly successful because they were so accessible, and also because they understood journalists’ needs and really kind of how to build those relationships with reporters.
Obama I think is, is different because she didn’t have those same kind of close relationships with the, the White House press corps because she didn’t need them in many ways.
She was dealing more with celebrities. So, she’s going on Ellen, you know, and now – she’s friends with Ellen. She’s friends with Oprah. She has relationships in kind of a different circle. And then she also has social media. And so, you know, both of them were very effective in controlling their narrative and finding the places where these women were most comfortable and then making the most of those different platforms to deliver their message.
The other two I would give a shout out to because I would be remiss if I didn’t were both Bushes. Both Barbara Bush and Laura Bush, who I know I haven’t talked about as much, were really very savvy in their media relations. Both of them understood where they were comfortable. They knew what they were comfortable talking about, and they were very successful in delivering their messages. And I think if you look at particularly the Bushes and Obama, and then we talk about which first ladies are considered the most popular
and when you see things like rankings, who are the most popular first ladies, both Laura Bush and Barbara Bush were incredibly popular and are still very well-respected today. Michelle Obama, although she has her detractors, very popular in general. And during her time – I think Johnson has been more forgotten. But, during her time period, Johnson was very well revered.
Teri Finneman: What media relations advice would you give to the first man to serve in the so-to-speak first lady role as the spouse of a woman president?
Lisa Burns: I would say first, I mean, the general answer is the same as for the women. Figure out your strategy. You know, what do you want to accomplish? What’s your comfort zone? Have a strong team and make sure your team understands the media. But I think the big challenge that the first male spouse is going to face is how do I perform this role without diminishing it?
And this role has been gendered from its very beginning. In part because we’ve only had women in this position. And it’s been held up by the media in particular as this sort of standard of womanhood. You know, first ladies are role models for American women. Which not exactly true and also not what they signed on for. But, now when we have a man in the role, especially the first one, there’s going to be so much attention on, you know, oh, well, would a man pick out place settings for a state dinner? Will a man pick out the Christmas tree?
Well, first, why should a woman have to pick out place settings, especially now they have huge staffs that are in control of that? They may do the final sign-off, but they’re not in there going through boxes of china. Same thing with things like decorating the Christmas tree. That’s sort of become traditional, and I know a lot of men who decorate their family trees. In fact, they’re the ones, you know, who are really all about Clark Griswold, the trees, the house, the lights, the everything.
So, I really hope that the first man who’s in this position finds a way not to sort of dismiss all of the kind of womanly things, you know, quote unquote, that have been done in the past, and I really will be mad if someone goes into the position and basically says, “Well, I don’t have to do anything because I’m a guy. ‘Cause, you know, why should I have to do any of this ’cause this is all woman stuff?” First, I don’t think that will fly with the American public, particularly women, but also, I really think that diminishes just the incredible role that these women have played often behind the scenes and often maybe not as, as well-known.
But, they really have been influential in helping their husbands and helping promote their administrations. So, I think the biggest probably advice would be, like, don’t, don’t downgrade anything that someone before you has done.
Teri Finneman: And then our final question of the show is, why does journalism history matter?
Lisa Burns: So, I could answer this as someone who teaches media history in a class on media history and memory. And, obviously, as a former journalist, we all think that, that media – of course journalism history matters, media history matters. But if I decided, you know, thinking about this, if I take it from the perspective of my students or of, you know, my mom or, you know, an average person, where do they get most of their information about, about the world from? Where does it come from? It comes from the media, particularly it comes from news media.
Although we’re seeing less and less of that in the age of social media, unfortunately. But journalists have a tremendous amount of power by choosing what stories to cover as well as sometimes what doesn’t get covered, they can shape how we view people, how we remember certain events, certain places. And I do a lot of work on collective memory and how we, as a society, remember events. News media is really critical because it becomes an archival source that shapes history.
And I don’t think we realize how much journalism and media history matters until we start to look at those different examples of journalism’s impact. If we think about, for example, you know, think about the JFK assassination and how much – if we talk about anything about those four days, how much of what we’re talking about is actually the media coverage of it? A lot of it is. If we look at wars, you know, what do we know about wars and, you know, whether it’s Vietnam, World War II or if it’s something like, you know, first ladies? Which ones do we remember? Who do we idolize? Who still gets talked about in the media?
All of this is just so incredibly important, and for me as someone who teaches media history, I always enjoy by the end of the semester my students reflecting back on the same question.
I give them a version of this question on the exams, on their final. And they talk about how, how much they didn’t realize that it really is sort of this, you know, the news media have shaped a lot of what they know and what they think about not only history but about current events. And so, media literacy to me is so key and journalism history and understanding our history is such a big and critical component of that.
Teri Finneman: Okay. Well, thanks so much for joining us today.
Lisa Burns: Thank you.
Teri Finneman: Thanks for tuning in and additional thanks to our sponsor, Taylor and Francis, the publisher of our academic journal, Journalism History. Until next time, I’m your host, Teri Finneman, signing off with the words of Edward R. Murrow. Good night and good luck. [Music plays]