What do you do when the phone rings and it’s the president on the line? If you’re Jen Psaki, you put on your big-girl pants and get to work. The White House communications director shares how she learned to speak up for herself.
Don’t Be Afraid to Start at the Bottom
My first job in politics was working for the Iowa Democratic Party as a door knocker, going from home to home. People aren’t always welcoming to strangers who show up at their door wanting to talk about politics. But it was such a good stepping stone to doing briefings and working with the press, because to handle either one, you have to do your homework and become an expert on what you’re talking about. Then you welcome it when someone challenges you, because you’ve prepared.
Get Energy From Adversity
When I became a State Department spokesperson, in 2013, things were getting messy in Ukraine, so Russian reporters — some of whom work for their government — tried to discredit me. Articles had made-up lines coming out of my mouth and photos of my head on the body of a bikini model. I’m human, so it was hurtful. But a former ambassador emailed me and said, “If they’re going after you, they’re worried about the effectiveness of your message.” Then what was going on became motivational, like I wasn’t only standing up for myself but standing against this absurd sexist propaganda. I prepared even more. I wanted to crush them with knowledge! And when I was asked about it during a briefing, I said it was a badge of honor to be seen as such a threat.
Get Out of Your Own Way
I was pregnant when the White House chief of staff called to offer me my job. I thought, OK, he doesn’t know. I’ll tell him and move on with my day because that will be the end of that. But he said, “Great. We’ll figure it out!” Then President Obama called and said, “Having a baby is the best thing. I need you here and don’t want you not to come because you’re having a baby.” Still, I was leaning against it. I just thought it would be so hard. A good male friend said, “You want to be able to tell your daughter that you did this job.” That stuck with me. No one else was limiting my possibilities. I was doing it to myself.
Don’t Buy Into Bias
When I was eight months pregnant, Josh Earnest, the press secretary, and I took a meeting with a network correspondent. The correspondent only looked at and talked to Josh, who kept saying things like, “Well, Jen is the one you should deal with on this.” At the end of the meeting, I said, “I hope you feel you can call me anytime.” And this person says, “Well, I don’t know if I’ll ever see you again.” There was a perception that because I was pregnant, I might not come back to work. How we play into those perceptions and let them affect us does matter.
Go All In on Ideas
Last June, on the day when the Supreme Court legalized gay marriage, we lit the White House in rainbow colors, and it was amazing. The idea came in part from associate communications director Jeff Tiller, who wrote a strong memo suggesting it. I brought it to the president, and we did it! When you present “crazy” ideas seriously, that’s how they’re treated.