Credibility: a requirement for a Spokeman but not a country?

Human nature is fascinating, everybody knows that. We either tend to believe people or we tend not to believe people. Sometimes we want to believe what is congruent to our belief systems and disbelieve that which is not. This to-believe-or-not is influenced by by the valiance of the item and the visibility or frequency of the item, to borrow from Jarol Manheim. In the case of a country, the relationship with the news provider may cause a leaning one way or the other, and in the case of a reporter, influence the output, in this case the news.

Pressbriefingscscott The construction of the White House Press Secretary, in the American tradition, provides a level insulation from the President and the Administration as whole. When messages fail to maintain positive traction with the reporters in the room, the inoculative effect of the messenger increases. Because of intentional independence of the Spokesman, potential "crash & burn" media briefings may be seen as frustration in reporting (the reporter might to work more since the information desired is not as readily available as desired or expected), a loss of credibility from the Spokesman, but apparently not of the Administration. In the case of Scott McClellan, his rumored resignation is founded on this notion.

According to PR Week (14 Nov 05):

There are certain things no effective press secretary can do without. Topping the list are a podium, a BlackBerry, and credibility.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan certainly has the first and probably the second. It's the third that some are starting to doubt.

First, it is interesting how much leeway certain people get. The desire to trust, if it matches our pre-formed beliefs, is strong and for reporters who are dependent on the Press Secretary for their jobs, they really want to trust him. Interesting is this trust is not transferred to the Administration, or distrust for that matter, in equal amounts. The Press Secretary is a convenient firewall.

In contrast, the spokesperson of the UK Prime Minister is not identified by name nor is there a picture of the "Prime Minister's Official Spokesperson" (seen as the PMOS or PMS). The language of the PMOS is polite and formal, as is expected of the British of course, and never standing in front of the PM to take a bullet. The difference is largely in the managerial style of the chief executive. The buck stops with the Prime Minister for he has to defend it personally and weekly during the Prime Minister's Question Time in Parliament. In reality, the PMOS is the spokesman for the government of the Prime Minister. This model makes the American Press Secretary more like a separate office, which is the goal when trying to insulate.

There are a couple of interesting exchanges Scott McClellan had with the press recently that should have reflected poorly on the Administration but because of the construct of the Office of the Press Secretary, had far less of an impact on the Administration's credibility. The impact being mostly constrained to McClellan himself. The credibility problem only becomes the White House's problem when it hurts a certain level because, in point of fact, the Press Secretary is granted his own leeway.

In a Press Briefing 13 Oct 05 the Press Secretary attempted to dodge and twist questions and answers but the press was having less and less patience with it. Attempts to defer to DoD, sometimes allowed, were not. On 8 Nov 05, there was a long back and forth with a reporter asking for a clear yes or no answer with the Press Secretary dancing around.

The reality of his likely resignation is not his deteriorating (deteriorated?) relationship with the press, but the need to get a new lightening rod in the press room. The reporters give the Press Secretary a lot of freedom at the beginning of his shift, more so than they should but an understandable amount considering the relationship. A less distinct office would allow less time to "get up to speed", a disadvantage to any entity looking for distance between policy and message.