Editor’s note: This story is taken from Ragan Communications’ distance-learning portal Ragan Training. The site contains hundreds of hours of case studies, video presentations and interactive courses.
How should a speechwriter or executive communicator deal with a change at the helm, bringing new priorities and differences in style? What do you do if a hands-on leader in love with a red editing pen is replaced by one who’s skeptical about the entire concept of speechwriting?
In a Ragan Training session that was a hit at the 2018 Speechwriters and Executive Communicators Conference in Washington, FBI Chief Speechwriter Adrianne Goldsmith Romero offers lessons in successfully moving forward even as the ground shifts beneath one’s feet. In “Surviving a Leadership Transition: Five Ways to Thrive When the World Shifts,” Goldsmith Romero describes writing for three FBI directors—four, if you count an acting director. Now wordsmithing for Christopher Wray, she also wrote for FBI chiefs James Comey and Robert Mueller, who is currently special counsel probing Russian interference in the 2016 election. Goldsmith Romero makes clear that she respects all three men, but says differences in style can make changes a challenge. (In a disclaimer, Goldsmith Romero makes clear she is speaking only as a speechwriter, and for herself, not the bureau.)
- Mueller, who was FBI director from 2001 to 2013, had a collaborative style when working with his writers. “If you were not prepared to explain and defend every single word, to fight for every phrase and every analogy, you were in a big piece of trouble,” Goldsmith Romero says. “And it was absolutely fantastic, every single time.”
- Comey, who headed the FBI from 2013 until President Donald Trump fired him last year, is a gifted communicator but said he preferred to do his own writing, leaving his speechwriting team feeling adrift. “I don’t think I’m going to need a speechwriter,” Goldsmith Romero recalls hearing from Comey. “I think you’re going to be pretty bored.”
- The Wray era has a Goldilocks feel to it—just the right amount of involvement of the principal—”and that’s in part because of the lessons we learned during the Comey Era,” she says.
Here are a few of those lessons:
1. Research your new leader. As soon as Trump nominated Wray as director, Goldsmith Romero’s team leaped into action, poring over every word of his they could find, and talking to every significant person he knew who would talk. They learned where he grew up, where he had worked, that he’d played jazz in college. They found out that he is an avid hiker and that he had been on the Yale crew (with Anderson Cooper as the coxswain). “We started to build on those nuggets of gold,” she says. “We didn’t wait to hear his stories. We thought to ourselves, ‘What would those stories be?’ and just started telling them.”
2. Hit the ground running. The team began drafting speeches for Wray before he even walked in the door, coming up with a series of potential remarks on a broad array of issues based on his past stances. When the speechwriters met with him days into his tenure, “he said he kept opening these mysterious blue folders with the gold FBI seal, with remarks that were tailor-made for every event,” Goldsmith Romero says. “And he said, ‘Who are these people, and how did I get so lucky?'”
3. Cultivate ties with the inner circle. Lacking direct access to Comey for months after he arrived, Goldsmith Romero’s team reached out to everyone possible in the concentric circles surrounding the director. Let them know you’re there to serve—that you want to do everything you can to help in this small part of your leader’s world. “We got as close as we could get to his thinking and his priorities, without actually being in the inner circle,” she says.
4. Attend meetings. Find out what issues are important to your principal, and dig deep into those. “Attend every single meeting you can no matter how dull or outside your expertise they may be,” Goldsmith Romero says. “Find a way to worm yourself into meetings you that you would not otherwise be invited to.”
5. Attend your speaker’s events. Even at events you don’t write for, you can listen to the stories and the way your speaker tells them. “Any time there is Q&A, record every single word,” Goldsmith Romero says. “This stuff is absolute gold. Your speaker is unscripted. They are off the cuff. They are telling good materials in their own voice in their own style.”
6. Be the lion tamer, not the clown. The atmosphere around any new leader is that of a three-ring circus, Goldsmith Romero says. You can be one of the clowns clamoring for attention, or you can be the lion tamer. “You’re the trusted advisor,” she says. “You’re the counselor. You’re the cheerleader when it’s appropriate, and the devil’s advocate when it’s necessary.”