The President’s Role As Spokesperson

Volume 31 Number 4

By

One of the most powerful tools bar presidents have during their term in office is their voice. Whether it is strong and booming, soft and delicate, or silent and written, with it, contributions are made that can influence the press, the public, politics, and members. In person or in print, what bar leaders say, to whom, and how their message is received by their audience matters greatly in the furtherance of the bar and its mission.

“When you are president of the bar, you have such an opportunity to speak and have people listen,” believes Stuart Cubbon, immediate past president of the Toledo (Ohio) Bar Association. “When president, you have a great deal more access, a better opportunity to be heard and to have your letters to the editor published.” But, he advises, “It’s also an obligation, and you cannot speak in a public setting without representing the association. To do so would be like having the pope speak and not represent the church.”

It is sometimes startling for new bar leaders to discover the extent to which that opportunity, or burden, weighs on a president’s ability to express personal and professional views on a given topic. As spokesperson for the bar and the voice of its members, how entitled is a president to have a personal agenda, to provide a personal opinion? Can one ever step out of one’s presidential shoes and provide a professional viewpoint that is not necessarily that of the bar?

There is no ‘my opinion’

“I don’t know if ‘disappointed’ is the right way to portray how an incoming president feels when they learn they have less latitude than they anticipated,” says Brad Carr, director of communications at the Alabama State Bar. “I think it’s more of a cold dose of reality that all their training as a lawyer comes smack into the wall labeled, ‘Stop. You are now entering the world of professional associations. There are policies and procedures that have been adopted, and you will be expected to follow them.’ ”

Such was the realization for Richard Uchida, immediate past president of the New Hampshire Bar Association. On his road to the presidency, Uchida says he knew “in theory” that he would have certain obligations as spokesperson, but the full realization of his limitations came as president-elect.

“As much as I hate to admit it, yes, I did think I would use the presidency as a jumping-off point for my views of the world and how it should turn,” he recalls. “But I quickly learned that providing your own personal opinions can make you a very ineffective leader.”

But why is this such a big deal? What’s the harm in telling an audience or member of the media, “Listen, this is my opinion, and I’m not speaking for my bar here”? The problem, says Janet Stidman Eveleth, communications director at the Maryland State Bar Association, is that the president’s opinion is always thought to be the bar’s opinion, no matter how many times he or she says otherwise.

“As a bar leader, you are the spokesperson for your bar; every position you state immediately becomes the position of every attorney in your area. That is how it will be presented by the press, and that is how it will be perceived by your members and the public,” Eveleth says. In her speech at the MSBA’s Bar Presidents’ Conference, she emphasizes to bar leaders one simple principle: “As president, you no longer have a personal opinion.”

There are presidents who try to manage both, who try to talk off the record, expressing their view or giving an aside based on their firm’s stance. But consider an example of what can happen when a president is coaxed out of the spokesperson’s role, as recalled by Michael Sheehan, founder and president of Sheehan Associates, a communications training firm in Washington, D.C., and frequent speaker at the ABA Bar Leadership Institute. Next to a photo of the bar president alongside a group of smiling Boy Scouts, the headline on the front page of the local paper’s metro section read, “Bar head calls for decriminalization of drug laws.” What had begun as a human interest story about the lawyer’s benevolent works with the Scouts turned into hard news when he was asked for his professional opinion on a completely different topic and he stepped out of his role as president of the bar.

“When you become the bar president, the lines between your personal life, your professional life, and that of your association become blurred,” Sheehan warns, adding that because the bar president is typically the official spokesperson for the bar, “ ‘My personal opinion’ should be struck from their language during their time in office.”

Admits Uchida, “There are times when that becomes very difficult because there are issues that you believe in quite passionately. While it may be difficult, you must subordinate your own views for those of the association, because the bar speaks with one voice.

“No matter how hard you try to disclaim it, the lawyers see it as one voice. Even if the press emphasizes in the article that it is your personal opinion, it will eventually become intertwined.”

Clarity through policy

Because the duty as spokesperson is so important and sometimes so difficult to uphold, some bars have drafted policy that addresses the matter. The Alabama State Bar President’s and Leader’s Manual specifically states:

“Not surprisingly, the president is often called upon by the media to comment on a variety of subjects. Because the Board of Bar Commissioners is the policy-making body of the state bar, a president cannot take positions on issues or commit the state bar on an issue unless first authorized to do so by the commission. Statements or comments by the president on an issue to the effect, ‘In my personal opinion …’ either assenting to or contrary to a prior decision by the commission, are generally insufficient to make them distinct from being considered as the official position of the state bar.”

In his 35 years in bar communications leadership, Carr has witnessed many potential conflicts. He recalls during his time at the New York State Bar Association a bar president who was a practicing Catholic. “Before he began his term, a number of social issues such as abortion and gun control were making their way onto the organized bar’s radar screens. Before he took over as president and underwent media training, we did a mock role-play with him and trapped him into answering a question about abortion.

“He learned from that experience. He wanted to step out of his role as bar president and answer the question as an individual with deeply held beliefs. We told him that no matter how many disclaimers he could use in his answer, the headline would still read, ‘Bar president against abortion.’”

In light of the 1990 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Keller v. State Bar of California, unified bars are unable to take a partisan stance or to lobby for things not directly related to the regulation of the legal profession or improving the administration of justice. As views provided on polemic issues can create skirmishes, policy in effect at the Rhode Island Bar Association may alleviate potential conflicts. Frederick D. Massie, director of communications and Bar Journal editor, explains, “Since we are a unified bar, we are always cognizant of the need to tread lightly on controversial issues. Thus, the president’s public position, when he or she is speaking for the bar, must be approved through, at least, the Executive Committee, and for larger political issues by a House of Delegates vote.”

Members are an audience, too

And whether the bar is unified or voluntary, the power of the president’s voice can influence more than the public’s view of the association; it can affect members’ views of the bar, too. Sensitive to the impact his personal viewpoints could have on issues facing the bar, Uchida listened more and opined less, even during private communications within the bar.

“It’s easy to think that you could loosen up a bit while communicating with committee members or communicating with the staff, but if your personal views are communicated all of the time, those around you will not see you as a fair and open-minded person, especially while running the meeting of the governing body of the association,” he says. Uchida believes that the leader of the meeting providing his or her voice too early could sway the direction of the meeting—and the final vote.

This notion has added emphasis for voluntary bars, whose policies, opinions, and positions can mean gaining or losing members. Eveleth, whose association numbers 22,700 members and encompasses more than two-thirds of the legal population in Maryland, is especially cognizant of this.

“As a voluntary bar, we try to be sensitive to all of our members’ feelings on certain issues because they will have conflicting views. The board takes that into consideration before taking a position on a topic, especially a controversial one.

“Once the decision is made and a formal position is taken, that becomes the formal opinion of the president.”

Even intramembership communications such as president’s pages should be handled with care, many advise. While it may be true that this column offers a little more room for a personal touch, it’s important to still keep the focus on the bar and its members. It’s also important to realize that the president’s page may not be a members-only affair, as it is not uncommon for bar publications to make their way across some reporter’s desk.

“The best use of a president’s page in the bar journal is to highlight issues of importance to the bar as a whole,” Massie believes. “Personal reminiscence occasionally creeps in, but these [columns] are less effective and not as well received as information of more general and timely legal interest and/or those that help forward a well-thought-out agenda.”

The Rhode Island bar invites reporters and editors to read its Journal, sending complimentary copies to members of the news media. “This has helped stimulate a number of news stories about issues raised in the Journal’s articles,” Massie says. Last year, President Thomas W. Lyons III’s writings on the future of the profession and on disaster preparedness prompted articles in the Providence Business News.

Managing politics

During times when personal, political feelings run deep, following proper spokesperson protocol can keep the bar out of the broiler—whether Keller is an issue or not. Knowing this, Cubbon felt it necessary to curb his political activism when he became president of the Toledo bar.

“I have strong opinions about who would be the best governor, best president, and best county commissioner,” he says. “And while I have a right to that opinion, it would have been extremely divisive to express personal opinions while president because some people would have felt that I was using my voice as bar president to advocate a political candidate.”

Cubbon was also concerned that if he were to endorse a candidate, it may be construed by the candidate as endorsement by the bar association. “I would have lost support for the bar,” he says, “and then would have lost support for things that the bar supports, such as pro bono and CLEs.”

Since the Toledo bar also evaluates judicial candidates, contributions made to judicial campaigns by board members are frowned upon. Similarly, the Bar Association of Erie County (N.Y.) has policies in effect that prohibit all members of its board of directors, its officers, and members of the judiciary committee from publicly endorsing or opposing judicial candidates. Executive Director Katherine Strong Bifaro, whose bar has been evaluating judicial candidates for 30 years, explains, “When the program was instituted, it was decided it would be a conflict to evaluate and then support a candidate in a campaign.” While the policy once extended limitations to all political campaigns, it has since been amended to address only judicial campaigns.

While many believe personal politics should never enter into a bar president’s communications, there are times when the bar must take a stand on a political issue, and, therefore, the president must explain the bar’s position to the media, legislators, and members of the public. And Keller doesn’t necessarily keep a president of a unified bar off the hot seat, as issues often come up that fall within the guidelines. When a president must enter the political fray, preparation becomes all the more important. In addition to keeping up regular communication with the bar’s executive director and communications director, it’s essential to build a good working relationship with legislative counsel or the government relations director, many presidents and communications directors say.

If your bar lacks such a person, perhaps your state bar can help; the ABA Governmental Affairs Office (www.abanet.org/poladv/), Division of Media Relations and Communication Services (www.abanet.org/media/home.html), and Division for Bar Services (www.abanet.org/barserv/), also have a wealth of resources for those facing political or legislative matters that require action from the bar.

Such preparation can pay dividends, as can media training for bar presidents and other bar leaders. In the November state election, Oregon was facing an amendment that both the Oregon State Bar and the Multnomah Bar Association thought would negatively affect the administration of justice (see “State elections prompt concerns for judicial independence,” November-December 2006, page 16). Judy Edwards, executive director of the Multnomah bar, notes that the bar’s president, Peter Glade, was quite effective in speaking with the media against the amendment, which was defeated.

Glade says media training with his board members and officers has helped him feel much more at ease talking with the press. “With aid of professionals, we have developed a ‘tool kit’ for each of the board members, staff, and officers who may be exposed to either media events or public events,” he notes. “The kit provides crafted talking points designed to effectively communicate the policies, messages, and priorities established by the board.” (For more on media training, see “Training and support,” page 10.)

Once a president, always a president?

This past November, an example of what can happen when politics mixes with bar business had the Florida Bar under fire by some of its members. According to Director of Public Information and Bar Services Francine Walker, an e-mail signed by a group of past presidents endorsing a Republican gubernatorial candidate was believed by some members to have come from the bar association. In actuality, it was sent by the Republican Party of Florida, which had purchased the mailing list from the bar, made available by the state’s public records provision. Some members jumped to the conclusion that because it was signed by past presidents, it was from the bar, Walker says, and they relayed their anger and disappointment to the bar and its board members.

Given this stir created from the opinions of past presidential voices, how far the “no personal opinion” tether extends is a matter of debate. According to Sheehan, once presidents leave office, they should be able to “reclaim out of coat check their personal opinion because the instant linkage has been released. The new president is the spokesperson, and requests for the bar’s view on a matter should be directed there.”

Cubbon, who came to appreciate being sought after for interviews, found that his exit from the limelight, and thus, the end of his responsibility as spokesperson, was rather swift: “The day my term is over, I get lost in the stack of phone slips.” But several months out, Uchida is still feeling a tug. “I feel I still have to be very careful,” he says. He was recently quoted on an ethics committee ruling, and the reporter credited him as past president of the bar. For now, he says, “The media still reminds people of that.”

You are the bar association

While in office, the consensus is that the best time for a president to speak his or her personal opinion is when it happens to be the same as that of the bar. When it is, the president has a significant opportunity to use his or her position to advance the mission of the association. And, scary though it may be, that’s an opportunity that shouldn’t be

squandered.

“Even those who are reluctant to speak to the media must do so in the interest of the bar,” Eveleth says. “The media wants to talk to the president.

“But remember, you are the logo. You are the bar association, because reporters and people in general will not see the difference.”

TRAINING AND SUPPORT

Most presidents have learned the nuts and bolts of managing a press interview prior to taking office, but not all can foresee the myriad questions that may come at them, and others fearfully anticipate those that may involve their personal opinions or particular topics they simply don’t wish to focus on. During his year as president-elect, Richard Uchida became a bit fearful that, as the first nonwhite president of the New Hampshire Bar Association, questions about race and culture would steal center stage from questions about the work of the bar. “I did not want this to be an issue of my presidency,” he says. “It was an area I wanted nothing to do with.”

It was during media training at the ABA Bar Leadership Institute that the first question in that vein was posed to him. “It put me on the spot,” he says. “If it were a real interview, I would have blown it with that look of horror. Anyone watching the TV would have known it in a heartbeat.”

Through that training, he says, he was prepared to answer such questions in a way that shifted focus from his personal background and opinions and toward the bar’s positions and mission. Whether provided at BLI, by the bar association’s communications staff, or by professionals brought into the bar, media training and refresher courses provide methods and techniques to maintain control of situations where the press may try to take control.

Rather than a single dose of media training and then total independence, many bar presidents draw on continuous support from bar communications staff, legislative staff, the executive director, or other key staff members. “I found it extremely helpful prior to an interview to sit down with the executive director or the communications director and work through [an] issue,” Uchida says. “It helps to consult with people who can craft a response to a hot-button issue because there are members of the media who will try to coax you for your opinion. They will say that by not providing an opinion, your opinion must differ. In such an instance, you must avoid temptation.”

At some bars, this support continues even during a telephone interview with the media. While many prefer to prep the president, connect him or her with the interviewer, and then let the interview take its course, some bar communications staffers stay on the line. As director of communications at the Alabama State Bar, Brad Carr’s support of the president sometimes finds him sitting in on conference calls with reporters, where his institutional memory can assist when a president faces questions about policies and issues that predate his or her term on the board. That practice is also in place at the Pennsylvania Bar Association, where Communications Manager Jeff Gingerich explains that conferencing in provides several advantages. He says his role is to “facilitate, not participate,” but his careful ear may catch any errors or miscommunications that occur during the interview. Without such care, he notes, “What ends up in print is not always what was intended.”

Not all bar presidents have the benefit of a communications professional’s memory and guidance. For those who might be asked to participate in an interview with a little less hand-holding, Brad Carr offers a primer.

“If your association has a policy [on an issue], that makes it easy: State the policy. If it does not, you say that.

“If asked for your personal opinion and it differs from that of the bar, you say, ‘I’m representing the organization, not the law firm or myself. My personal opinion is irrelevant.’ “

And most important of all, he says: “Never go off the record.”

—K.H.S.

Advertisement

  • About Bar Leader

Twitter Bar Leader
  • Contact Us

Bar Leadership Institute 2015

  

Bar School: Bar Orientation

  

DBS Social Media