Heard on the Hill

More Unites Than Divides Senate Communicators From Both Parties

Senate Press Secretaries Association members ‘bounce ideas off’ one another

Members of the Senate Press Secretaries Association visit New York for their conference in February. From left, former President Julia Krieger from the office of Sen. Heidi Heitkamp; current President Megan Whittemore from the office of Sen. David Perdue; and board member Robert Sumner from the office of Sen. Mike Crapo. (Courtesy of the Senate Press Secretaries Association)

As more reporters roam the Capitol hallways in the age of Trump, the job of communicating for Senate offices has only gotten harder.

Wrangling their bosses through crowds of reporters, writing press releases and op-eds to set the record straight, and fielding calls and emails in a 24/7 news cycle is something staffers for both Republicans and Democrats are trying to manage. They come together in the Senate Press Secretaries Association to share their experiences.

“Given how partisan this place can be, the Senate Press Secretaries Association is one of the only bipartisan groups that helps bring people together based on our shared press experience,” president Megan Whittemore said. “It is so helpful to have a community of communicators to bounce ideas off of and learn from no matter how seasoned you are on Capitol Hill.”

Whittemore, communications director and deputy chief of staff to Republican Sen. David Perdue of Georgia, became president of the association in 2018, replacing Julia Krieger from the office of North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp. The presidency rotates between Republicans and Democrats.

The association met with CBS' John Dickerson (middle) while on their New York trip. (Courtesy Senate Press Secretaries Association).
Members of the association met with CBS’ John Dickerson, middle, while on their New York trip. (Courtesy Senate Press Secretaries Association)

Shannon Beckham from Colorado Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet’s office is the association’s vice president.

“Oftentimes we get so busy around here, we’re really just working within our office,” Beckham said. She said the association has been a way for her to meet people outside her usual routine.

The board is made up of staffers Ashton Davies from Sen. Lamar Alexander’s office, Rob Sumner from Sen. Mike Crapo’s office, Christine Brennan from the Environment and Public Works Committee, Tyler Hernandez from Sen. Shelley Moore Capito’s office, Meredith Jones from Sen. John Kennedy’s office and Vanessa Valdivia from Sen. Martin Heinrich’s office.

As part of its effort to drive interactions between press staffers, the group has an annual conference in New York. This year’s gathering, which took place in February, drew 50 members and featured meetings with journalists.

“The media is always changing so we need to have strong relationships with the press and each other to be able to adapt and be effective communicators for the different senators we represent,” Whittemore said.

They met with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, CBS’ John Dickerson, The New York Times’ editorial board and Buzzfeed’s New York team, among others.

“In New York, we were not only getting to know our counterparts better, we were also meeting a ton of reporters that you just wouldn’t get in another setting,” Beckham said. “It was nice to do it at the beginning of the year because we’re meeting with people … and getting to hear what their vision is for the news in 2018, what types of stories they’re looking for.” 

The association also has a weekly newsletter that posts communications job openings.

Rebecca Steele, Sen. Ron Wyden’s former digital director, found her new job as digital advocacy strategist for Toyota through the newsletter.

Steele is still active with the association.

“It provides a really easy and great way to stay connected with colleagues when I was in the Senate,” she said.

Hundreds of Capitol Hill alum have remained a part of the association after leaving the Hill. About 150 current staffers are members.

Watch: Covering the Capitol: Adjusting to New Realities

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