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|Back to Home > Content > Interviews > So What Do You Do, Ethan Riegelhaupt, Chief Speechwriter for The New York Times?|
Since then, the seasoned pol has been crafting speeches for the Times' top executives, and working hard to communicate the paper's innovations within the company as head of speechwriting and internal communications.
Riegelhaupt began his career in politics on the 1980 as the New York issues director for Ted Kennedy's presidential campaign, as "Lion of the Senate," is among the most fiery speakers stumping for any of the major candidates this season.
Though he is new-school in his use and enthusiasm of new media (he's on Facebook and has a stellar Times Quiz ranking), Riegelhaupt is decidedly old-school about communications professionals remaining silent partners in the PR process.
How did you make the transition into full-time speech writing?
Being part of Mario Cuomo's successful gubernatorial campaign in 1982 was an important first step. When I initially joined the Administration, I was the program associate for regulated industries and had supervisory responsibilities for banking, insurance, and a variety of other departments. A few years later, I was appointed executive director for the Council of Fiscal and Economic Priorities (New York State's long range planning unit).
During this period, I assisted Governor Cuomo with his major addresses. One of the nation's great orators and a brilliant writer, the Governor thoroughly enjoys a rigorous debate (I use present tense, as he continues to tour the world speaking) about what a particular speech should achieve and how it could change the national narrative.
I learned the value of working for extraordinarily ambitious chief executives, who had the inclination to aim high. I also came to appreciate the difference between contributing to a speech process and taking responsibility for it -- speech kibitzers throughout the land take note.
After spending about six years in the Administration, I was about to move into the private sector to take a position in either public relations or investment banking. One morning, I called the Governor and asked what he thought I should do and he suggested that I stay around and supervise his speech staff. Now I would learn all about responsibility.
What was your biggest triumph on the campaign trail? Your biggest mistake?
Success: Working on Mario Cuomo and Mark Green's winning campaigns for Governor and Public Advocate were my major triumphs, but I will get a little more granular.
I was always an issues director during campaigns. I was supposed know about half dozen paragraphs worth about every imaginable and unimaginable topic, from organic dairy farming and Medicaid and Medicare to the state of New York State's relationship with Kazakhstan (always a little convoluted).
In this capacity, I also drafted platforms, and dissected the policy proposals of the opposition. The 1982 gubernatorial campaign in New York provided a good example of how these skills were employed effectively. The day after Cuomo, then Lieutenant Governor, defeated Mayor Koch in the primary, my phone rang off the hook with desperate offers of assistance. Soon thereafter, I asked folks in Albany to take a look at the Republican gubernatorial candidate, Lew Lehrman's economic strategy and determine how it would affect New York State property taxes. Fueled by the desire to make amends, a group of savvy analysts -- in their free time, of course -- contributed a very useful report and it turned into a very effective campaign issue.
|Candidates and elected officials are always disappointed that their finely-crafted speeches are not the lede story in either The New York Times or the Washington Post. This is because there was no effort to break news, which is what newspapers do for a living.|
Mistake: Spending too much time in the headquarters inevitably clouds the visions of issues people. To be effective, you need to leave your desk, and spend time in the field and find out what the voters are actually thinking about. (By the way, this also applies to private and public sector speechwriters; too often headquarters can be one big echo chamber). It broadens your perspective and allows you to offer better analysis and counsel. This is significantly easier to do now with all the technology at your disposal.
How do all the new technology tools affect how you do your job?
There short answer is a lot. The technological corollary of not getting out of the office enough is not becoming intimately familiar with what the entrepreneurs and scientists of Silicon Valley and Alley have been inventing. If you are writing and thinking about the new digital era, which we all are in one way or another, you must have a hands-on appreciation of what you are trying to say. Having a monthly subscription to Wired and regularly reading the Techcrunch and Gizmodo blogs is useful. Touching and feeling the stuff is critically important, especially for those of us who grew up in the pre-Internet era.
Taking my own counsel, I joined the Times's Facebook network. While my college-age daughters were horrified, I'm proud to say that they both did "friend" me. I also conducted podcast interviews -- developing a much bigger appreciation for radio announcers, helped create a multiplatform newsletter focusing on the interest of our advertisers, and spend a lot of time talking to the research and development folks. (Our guys won the Hack Day competition sponsored by BBC and Yahoo! in London last year.)
What did you learn from Mario Cuomo about how speeches are dissected and reported in the media?
The media will cover a serious speech if it changes the way that we think about a particular issue or recommends an important solution in a vital area. News begets news coverage. Candidates and elected officials are always disappointed that their finely-crafted speeches are not the lede story in either The New York Times or the Washington Post. This is because there was no effort to break news, which is what newspapers do for a living.
Moreover, reporters like to be inspired and an enthusiastic audience will affect their stories. Along the way, if you happen to appeal successfully to the better angels of our nature, you can significantly enhance the coverage. What absolutely will not work is a white paper posing as a speech; long, dull lists of policy recommendations do not make good copy. The speech should also have a compelling rationale, tight logic, and strong supporting themes.
How important are the other things, and do you teach them, such as body language, pacing, lighting, and wardrobe?
Successful presentations are 75 percent speech and 25 percent delivery. You need to understand your speakers' styles and what makes them more comfortable and happier. This necessitates thinking about the different components of the speech environment. The podium and lighting are critically important. You also want to ensure that additional elements, such as video and PowerPoint are going to work flawlessly. And then there is the teleprompter.
You also need to have a good sense what the audience is expecting. The speaker is invited into the audience's "home'" and has certain expectations. This is especially true for commencements. Too often, speakers forget what a special day this is for the students and are then surprised by the somewhat indifferent response.
Overseas events present the added challenge of simultaneous translation. That's a challenge for those speakers who look for immediate audience response for affirmation, which they all tend to do. Fundamentally, when preparing for a speech, it is necessary to take a holistic attitude towards the event. If the speaker is relaxed, and has a good rapport with the audience, it'll be much easier to achieve your goals.
The word "integrated" gets bandied about a lot in communications. How can a speechwriter be sure their work is integrated with the other parts of the PR plan?
It is all about adhering to your main corporate themes and reinforcing them in all your communications. (This is where boring is good.) I work very closely with our senior vice president of corporate communications, Catherine Mathis, and my staff, executive director of employee communications Judy Jones and manager of internal communications and public relations Stacy Green, to ensure that we use external and internal speeches, our internal Web site, and a steady stream of employee emails to support our long-term strategic communications plan. (Yes, you can do all this without sounding like a 1950s corporate drone or a Soviet-era apparatchik.)
Do you adjust the messages and plan as you go?
While closely adhering to the main components of a strategic communications plan is essential, we live in a volatile world and communicators must embrace a degree of intellectual flexibility. Think about what was happening in the presidential election last September or the prospect of the New York Giants winning the Super Bowl just a month ago.
An effective speech should reflect the changing economic, technological, political, and cultural landscape. You need to take a postmodern Renaissance mindset -- okay, a tad oxymoronic -- and reflect what is currently happening: the macro political/economic stories of the week combined with a few Access Hollywood headlines. The audience knows that the speaker has come to tell a story, but it is also looking for this individual to make an intellectual and/or emotional connection. This usually requires at least acknowledging the main headlines of the news cycle.
Good speechwriters should also constantly look for new developments in their company/government/nonprofit -- new products and services, new metrics and new achievements -- to strengthen their arguments. They should pay close attention to what is happening throughout their organization to bolster and enliven their arguments. The strategy must remain the strategy, but there should be a consistent effort to add new supporting evidence.
Start with a joke, yay or nay?
Sure, crowds like to be entertained; we all do, but that should not be your first priority. It slows down the writing process too much. The humor should flow as the speech is being drafted. As you get closer to the event, you can better see where jokes can be used most effectively.
Are considerations different now that all speeches are reported nationally?
Actually they are disseminated internationally (proving Thomas Friedman's The World is Flat thesis), if they achieve a certain degree of significance. The Internet has transformed the playing field. All information, including speeches, is global and immediate. With popular new Web sites such as NyTimes.com and Boston.com (sorry for the commercial interruption), social networking platforms such as Facebook and MySpace, blogs, and phones with screens, an exceptionally good or awfully bad speech will be distributed far and wide. Then, of course, there is YouTube, which is giving everyone around the clock video access to a surprising number of speeches, especially in the political realm.
How important are internal communications to the Times?
Our executive committee, under the leadership of Arthur Sulzberger Jr., chairman and publisher of The New York Times, and Janet Robinson, president and CEO, takes internal communications very seriously. They know that we are living in a complicated, transitional period for the media industry, and it critically important for everyone in our company to know what is happening.
To achieve this goal, we think both vertically and horizontally. We try to provide an opportunity for the senior executives to explain where the company is heading. We also provide vehicles, such as podcasts and panel discussions, for our colleagues to tell each other what they are doing and how different segments of our organization are meeting the needs of our audiences and our advertisers.
Given everyone's time crunch, there is a significant emphasis on entertainment value. We want to do more than simply providing the text of a speech. We want to give our colleagues a multidimensional sense of what their senior executives are and what each other is doing.
Is there a difference between private and public sector speechwriting?
After having spent half my time in the private sector and the other half in the public sector, I have learned applies equally to corporate and public sectors.
Executive speechwriting has become a far more multidimensional responsibility. A successful speech has many elements. It is about applying your knowledge of public relations, crisis management, and your organization's financial, advertising, and marketing operations. It is also about working closely with an increasing array of professionals -- from your clients to those individuals who provide you with necessary information, (such as budget, legal. and accounting), to the event folks. While it is becoming a more complicated process, it is also more necessary and more personally satisfying.
[This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]
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