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A Q&A with Former White House Communications Director Kevin Sullivan

By Jim Kokoris

Sep 22, 2015

We’re thrilled to be featuring longtime JSH&A friend Kevin Sullivan. For years, “Sully” has been a wonderful resource for us and our clients, offering advice on all things media related. His new ebook, Breaking Through, is a must read. Thoroughly entertaining and informative, it offers clear counsel on what to do when the media comes calling. I sat down with Sully and asked him a few questions about it. A summary of our chat is featured below.

What prompted you to write this book?

Mostly it was the encouragement of my wife, Jo Anne. She had heard my stories more than a few times and thought that PR people – especially those starting out – might benefit from them. The most pleasant surprise has been the number of executives and staffers from many fields, not just PR, who have told me the lessons on how to break through with your message have helped them. The eBook is really designed to help you be a more effective communicator no matter what you do for a living. The tips work just as well for the weekly staff meeting as they do in a 60 Minutes interview.

Most people who’ve worked at the White House have spent years in the political arena. Your jump from sports to the White House is somewhat unprecedented. How did it happen?

The first chapter of the eBook is devoted to my unusual and, at times humorous, tale of going from corporate communications at NBC Universal (after 20-plus years in sports PR) to the White House. In January 2005 I was recommended to longtime Bush adviser Margaret Spellings, who had just been sworn in as the new Secretary of Education. My shrewd response was to tell her she had the wrong guy. I had no interest in leaving my great job at 30 Rock for a temporary job at the decidedly unglamorous Federal Building No. 6 (as the Education building was then known). She asked me to meet her for lunch in D.C., where she gave me the “this is your country calling” pitch. I was aware of two things: I was being asked to serve and they were only going to ask once. After agonizing for a few weeks, I decided to jump off the cliff and go for it – never dreaming that after a little more than a year at Education, I’d be off to the White House to serve as President Bush’s communications director.

There are a couple lessons learned in this story, too. Don’t pigeon-hole yourself because our skills really can translate to other fields. And relationships are everything. Secretary Spellings and I shared a mentor – Tom Luce, whose recommendation to her changed my life. I encourage young people as often as I can to not value technology and devices over relationships and ideas.

What was the most harrowing media issue or challenge you’ve faced in your long career?

The key is to have a plan. If you have a plan, even the most harrowing crisis or bad news story is manageable. From my days with the Dallas Mavericks when star player Roy Tarpley was banned from the NBA for life – twice – for substance abuse violations to NBC Sports walking away from NBA rights negotiations to organized labor funding anti-No Child Left Behind campaigns to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and other issues during my Washington days, the key is to have a plan, enlist your allies to help and keep communicating until it’s over.

If an executive had one hour to prepare for a 60 Minutes interview, what would you tell him/her?

First, get comfortable with your answers to any questions that make you squirm a bit. Acknowledge the issue and pivot as seamlessly you can to what you are doing about it. Don’t dodge the issue, but broaden it out and look forward. Second, keep it simple: Internalize two or three messages that you want to leave the audience with. The interview will be edited, so be concise. Envision the headline you’d like to see and work towards that. And finally, have a story ready that supports your most important message. We are at our most authentic and natural when we are telling stories.

What’s the most common mistake executives make when they’re being interviewed?

Giving long answers is a common one. Don’t feel as though you have to start at the beginning and tell everything you know about a topic. Give them the best stuff – our attention spans can’t handle complicated explanations. And besides, as they say in Washington: “If you’re explaining, you’re losing.”

What public figure do you think consistently shines in interviews?

Jeff Bezos of Amazon is a natural and effective storyteller. Marissa Mayer of Yahoo is very disciplined about staying on message and is fun to listen to at the same time. Dan Ammann of General Motors is great at framing an issue on his terms.

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