MSU Alumnus, White House Deputy Press Secretary says his work “is all about the people”
Livonia Michigan native and Michigan State University School of Journalism alumnus Chris Meagher is the White House Deputy Press Secretary.
“I actually started as a newspaper reporter,” says Meagher. “I worked at The State News the second semester of my senior year, which was a great experience that kind of allowed me to take the next step after I graduated. I had a couple of internships, including one at the Oakland Press in Pontiac and then became a reporter out in Santa Barbara, California, first for a daily that is no longer in existence and then an alternative weekly there. I was a reporter for about six or seven years and had a conversation with the congresswoman who represented the area out there one day and decided to come onto her staff and become the press secretary. That's kind of how I flipped to political communications.
“Since then I've worked in California. I've worked on a couple of campaigns in Colorado and Montana. I worked on the mayor's race in Chicago in 2019. I had a brief stint at General Motors in Washington DC doing public policy communications. And then in 2019, I was the national press secretary for Mayor Pete Buttigieg in his presidential campaign. I had a few gigs in between including with Governor Whitmer, and now I'm honored and lucky enough to have the opportunity to work at the White House.”
Meagher describes the exhilaration and excitement of working in the heartbeat of the new administration.
“There's really nothing quite like it. You get carried away in the midst of your job and what you're doing and the tasks that you have to accomplish. And then you look out the window and you see the front of the White House and you're like, ‘Wow.’ Just what an honor to be here and working hard to get things done.”
Meagher describes some of his duties and responsibilities as White House Deputy Press Secretary.
“Every day's a little different. You never know what's going to happen. You never know where the day is going to lead. You can sort of have a vision for what you need to accomplish and then something happens and you have to react to it. I like that. Every day offers something a little different. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki has a daily press briefing. And so a lot of the first half of the day is preparing for that and making sure that she has the information that she needs to relay to reporters in the briefing room.
“The rest of the day is just interacting with reporters more or less and dealing with the volume of inquiries that come in every day. I have a portfolio of dealing with some of the more political requests, some of the bigger picture type questions that are coming in. So not necessarily in a beat per se, but kind of a potpourri of incoming questions and inquiries that keep you on your toes. You never know what somebody's going to ask about. But one of the cool things about the White House is it's a working building. Reporters’ offices and cubes are literally right down the hall from mine. They can literally walk down the hall, open the door, and walk right into my office.”
Meagher says his desire to study journalism led him to MSU.
“It was exactly what I was looking for in a college experience. I lived in Wilson my freshman and sophomore years, so not too far from the School of Journalism. I have absolutely no regrets about attending Michigan State and still get back there as often as I can.
“I remember sitting in one of my early journalism classes and the professor was talking about the nuts and bolts of conducting an interview and taking notes and how he had developed a shorthand. And at the time I was like, ‘that's crazy. How do you read this? How do you understand it?’ And lo and behold I developed my own shorthand. I also realized journalism is all about people, and that it's the people behind the stories that really matter. In journalism, you're often sitting in city council meetings or county board meetings or watching what's happening on the State House Floor or in the halls of Congress. But I think what Michigan State and my journalism education really taught me, and it’s something that I tried to carry with me throughout my reporting career that continues even on the other side, is it's all about the people.
“The American Rescue Plan's a great example where we're making these decisions about huge pots of money and where they go. And you can sort of forget about what we're really talking about, and that's checks in people's banks accounts for families who have lost jobs or are struggling with school-aged children. The decisions that we make impact people's lives.”
How have you seen journalism and public relations change since 2005? You graduated about the time Facebook and Twitter were coming on. Where is this media landscape now? And where do you see it going?
“Twitter and Facebook have completely changed things. I think from my perspective as a communicator, it has just totally completely changed the news cycle. It's nonstop, frankly, between cable news, CNN and MSNBC and Fox, just 24-7 around the clock coverage, too.
“So their reporting online never stops. And then Twitter obviously never stops. And so it's not like you are working until the New York Times deadline approaches at 6:00 p.m. or whatever the time is on a weeknight. And then you can kind of take a second to breathe. It just keeps going, keeps going, and you're always monitoring Twitter. I think one thing that I think we really understood on the Pete Buttigieg campaign and one thing that the Biden campaign also did really well was remembering that while helpful and while important, the vast majority of the American population isn't on Twitter. Twitter is a valuable tool in your toolbox. It's a valuable tool to reach reporters. It's a valuable tool to reach thought leaders and people who can really drive a conversation.
“But at the same time, you can't react to every little thing that you see on Twitter or else you'd go crazy. We reminded ourselves on the Pete campaign constantly that something like 6 percent of the United States population is active on Twitter. That's a lot of people when you're trying to reach people where they are and communicate a message that isn't necessarily where everyone is. But you can't let what's happening on Twitter always dictate what you're doing or what you're responding to. Sure, it's important and it is a way to reach people where they are, but it's not the only way. And it shouldn't be the only way.”
Meagher believes it’s an exciting time to be in journalism.
“There's no question that news organizations have endured, especially on the local level, difficult times and are sort of battling these questions themselves. But I think there's always going to be an appetite for information. I think there's always going to be an appetite for people shooting straight with the American people. You've seen it prioritized by the Biden administration bringing back daily press briefings every single day of the week. Well, Monday through Friday. Because we understand that reporters have a job to do. And that job is to relay what is happening in the White House to the American people, and that's always going to be valuable.
“People are always going to be seeking information. The way that they seek it is fluid and changing, obviously. Some people go to Twitter for all their information. Some people go to Facebook. Some people have their five websites that they check. Some folks still get the newspaper delivered every day. The need for information is never going to subside, and the need to hold power and government accountable for the decisions that are going on always needs to happen. The First Amendment and the rights of journalists are always going to exist. And I think that that's really important.”
What’s Meagher’s advice for students in MSU's J-School today or anywhere throughout the College of Communication Arts and Sciences who may think they want to get into political communications in some way?
“I always say that my time at The State News really allowed for me to take that next step toward getting my next internship. And then that internship led me to my next internship, and that led me to my job. And it wasn't an easy path to get there, and I don't even know if I would have been on that path if it wasn't for that semester at The State News. Whether it's journalism and reporting or whether it's communications and politics, take those opportunities while you're still in college to the extent that you're able to. Find a way to get your foot in the door and show them that you're willing to do what it takes. Then just keep your head down and work hard and put yourself in a position to be successful.
“You're not going to know everything right out of the gate, but you're there to learn and to grow and to build a new experience. A lot of the younger folks that I encounter in political communications these days take that step while they're in college, and they do that summer internship, or they take a semester off to go work for their congresswoman. If that's something that you're interested in, I would totally recommend it. I would also recommend working on a campaign if you do want to do political communications. It's a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
“There's really nothing like spending six months a year of your life building up towards something and fighting for something every day. It all culminates in whether you win or whether you lose on election day. If it's something that you're passionate about, just dive in and get involved. And it doesn't even have to be communications. There are a lot of different types of jobs in politics that are interesting to people.
“I'm a proud Spartan. I try to get back to campus once or twice a year for a football game and to see some old friends, but I'm really proud of my time at Michigan State and all of the exciting things that the university is doing and that alumni are doing here and around the world. I’m proud to be able to represent the university and the work we're doing at the administration. Dive in and give it a shot and see what happens. If you work hard and you make the right connections and you keep building that resume, you never know where you might end up.”
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