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Strategic Communications from the Perspective of a White House Journalist: Star Tribune's Judy Keen

Tuesday, May 1, 2018   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Erika Guenther, student University of Minnesota
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by Erika Guenther

Student in the Hubbard School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Minnesota


Small town, big dreams. Minnesota reporter Judy Keen is currently a journalist for the Star Tribune. As a former member of the White House press corps, her insights into the relationship between journalism and strategic communications are invaluable, especially in today's climate where mistrust of professional communication plagues our industry.


Keen decided she wanted to be a journalist after a sixth-grade writing assignment. Her instructor mentioned that she was a talented writer and suggested journalism as a future career.


Pursuing this suggestion, Keen attended Mankato State University and the University of Minnesota before returning home to write for the Austin Daily Herald. There, she started out writing obituaries and wedding announcements and then gradually progressed to local politics.  


This small start led to much bigger things. Judy advanced in the world of journalism, stopping in Ohio and Illinois, and eventually landed in Washington, D.C. as a general assignment reporter for USA Today. Her momentum did not slow down, as she became a presidential campaign reporter and then a White House reporter.


Keen covered the White House during the presidential terms of George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. She has extensive experience working with the various layers of strategic communicators that comprise an individual's press corps. However, working during this time meant she was part of the press corps in September 2001. Curious about the role of reporting during such a turbulent time, I inquired about her experience as a journalist.


Immediately, Keen remembered covering the president during the attacks on the World Trade Center complex. She referenced an article she wrote for the Star Tribune, where she reflected on her experience as the only newspaper reporter onboard Air Force One during on Sept. 11, 2001. She had the opportunity to write this first-person reflection due to "an accident of the alphabet." An alphabetical rotation of the news organizations' name determined which journalists traveled on the same plane as the president, and USA Today was up next. This article is an intense reflection of her individual experience, but Keen recalled how the dynamic of interactions shifted on board, echoing the uncertainty of the situation. All that Keen could do was keep meticulous records of onboard events.


"Looking back, my responsibility to track what was happening minute to minute … delayed emotional reactions to the scenes on the TV screen" wrote Keen in the article. "But it felt like the Earth had shifted on its axis. Nothing seemed quite real. I was glad to be with Bush … but my heart was pounding."


Along with the extreme experience of first-hand reporting on 9/11, Keen has also experienced international reporting in areas of political unrest. She traveled to Somalia during U.S. intervention and reported from the Soviet Union as it unraveled. With such extreme circumstances, I queried how a journalist could perform in places where safety was not guaranteed.


"Well that's the bottom line, I learned a lot about myself. Especially while getting shot at in Somalia, we learn to manage fear and make good decisions… I found out I had a lot more courage than I thought I did."


With an extraordinary life story, Keen is full of experience that a strategic communicator can benefit from. Curious about the dynamic between the press corps and the White House press staff, I asked how journalists perceive strategic communicators.


"It is an interesting dance between a press corps and the White House or a high-level campaign. We need them, they need us, but there is a lot of tension in the relationship," said Keen.


As a future professional in strategic communications, I inquired about the best practices I could implement to build a positive relationship with the journalists I will coexist with. She suggested two things; be accessible and be honest. Keen said that she would usually reach out to the communications professionals that are most accessible for comment and most knowledgeable about the material they are responsible for. However, she mentioned that it didn't matter how available someone one if they didn't have a reputation for honesty. 


Although there are instances where a press secretary was not allowed to discuss some information, Keen said it was always better to answer with a statement like "No comment" or "I can't discuss that" than providing misleading information.


"We are extremely good at our jobs, and we'll eventually find the truth in any situation. When press staff does not practice upfront honesty, it is extremely frustrating," said Keen. Doing so impedes the ability of a journalist, leading to mistrust between the parties. Her primary piece of advice was always to be upfront and honest. If I am unsure of any information, offer to get back to the reporter, and then actually do so. Doing so builds a positive rapport between journalists and strategic communicators.


Editor’s Note: As a way to support the next generation of public relations professionals, we regularly feature articles written students from within our extended community. Many of you teach and have already seen the thoughtful insights offered by students. For those of you who haven’t, now’s your chance.


Students, want to learn more about the industry? Reach out to our student relations committee to learn how you can get involved in PRSSA and PRSA. Students involved in PRSSA gain access to professional development opportunities, scholarships, the opportunity to be published and more.

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