Legislative Staff Week | My Life Before the Legislature

6/7/2019

Communications Staffers Rely on Lessons Learned in Fascinating Former Jobs

By Jane Carroll Andrade

There’s nothing like a legislative session to keep a communications staffer in the present moment. The days whoosh by as they write, record, interact, strategize, post and photograph. They are quick, responsive and responsible, using skills honed in prior positions.

Like a lot of legislative staffers, communications staff bring a wealth of experiences to their jobs. We persuaded a few of them to pause for a moment to revisit their pasts. We found a world traveler, a filmmaker, a public relations pro and a bullet-dodging journalist.

Come along as we explore their diverse experiences and lessons learned as they recall their lives before the legislature.

Alison Kniker

Video manager, Texas Senate Media Services

In current job since: 2002

Former job: Broadcast manager for Royal Caribbean Cruises, the first woman in the position fleetwide.

What I did: Recorded shows, guest entertainers and activities on board, and did location shoots. She went straight from an airplane to a camel’s back on the Spanish island of Lanzarote and learned to adjust her camera to climates ranging from Iceland and Scandinavia to Egypt and New Zealand.

What I brought to the legislature: The sense that “change is constant, and to do the most I can with what I have.” She also brought a sense of history. “In the 1880s my grandfather’s grandfather left Sweden for Texas to help build the Capitol. In the 1930s my grandfather took time out from his job as a journalist to serve as the governor’s press secretary. My grandmother and my uncle worked here, and I hope I can pass the torch to future generations.”

Advice for newbies: It’s “easier to try and do everything than specialize,” she says. “A good night’s sleep goes a long way. Wear the most comfortable shoes you can. Set your cell phone on airplane mode. Still looking for comfortable headphones—suggestions anyone?”

Guy Bergstrom

Senior communications specialist, Washington House Democratic Caucus

In current job since: 1996

Former job: Newspaper reporter

What I did: “I covered politics, mayhem and political mayhem. It was never boring.” One particularly memorable day, he got a call from a small-town police chief telling him there was a shooter on the loose. “When I got out of my beater car, he shot at me. Not that I was special. He was shooting at everybody.”

What I brought to the legislature: First, “speed is fundamental.” Writing three stories before 10 a.m. was great training. Second, persuasion and structure, which are the most difficult and interesting parts of the job. “What they teach us in journalism school—the inverted pyramid—is fine for press releases and radio briefs, but what lawmakers are really doing 90 percent of the time is persuasion.”

Advice for newbies: In a world where communications is “changing by the week,” he recommends learning how to tell stories. “It’s still about informing the press and public. Using storytelling or rhetorical tools instead of the inverted pyramid gives people the same information, just in a package that’s far easier to digest. And that helps do an important job: making sure people are informed and know how to get involved in their democracy.”

Carolyn Tanaka

Director of communications, Hawaii House Majority Caucus

In current job since: 2013

Former jobs: Television reporter, communications director for a former governor and a U.S. Senate campaign, associate vice president for external affairs at the University of Hawaii, advertising and marketing professional

What I did: A little bit of everything—reporting, writing, strategizing, outreach, management and advocacy

What I brought to the legislature: “My reporting background helps in understanding what makes news and how reporters operate. But my public relations experience allows me to use a variety of communication tools that better assist lawmakers to inform, promote and gather support for their work, ideas and policies.”

Advice for newbies: A communications or public relations background, combined with an interest in and knowledge about politics, is key. “I love this environment—the combination of politics and governing.”  Timing and maturity play a role, too. “When I was a freshman in college, I was an intern here and I was bored out of my mind. Back then I wanted to be in the news, I wanted to be a reporter. I’ve come full circle. I like this place a helluva lot better and find it way more interesting than I did when I was 18.”

Will Tracy

Production assistant, Arkansas House of Representatives

In current job since: 2016

Former job: Ran a production company

What I did: “I did everything from production work on commercials to live events to feature films. I did second unit work on ‘Terminator Salvation,’ and in college I was the art director for a low-budget horror film.”

What I brought to the legislature: Knowing how to work under pressure. “I did a lot of internet and live television work, and I learned to think on my feet. If you don’t get the shot, it’s not going to happen again.” He also looks at his job as an agency, and the legislature as the client. “You’re making a product. You want viewers. You can be creative.”

What I value: “More people watch my work than ever before. I get about 1,000 hits a day. I get paid to do what my degree’s in every day, so I don’t complain.”

Advice for newbies: Know that creativity and impartiality can—and must—coexist in a nonpartisan shop. “You can’t create drama.” And as his boss reminds him, don’t forget where you work: “Walk up the stairs so you can remember what you’re doing and where you’re at.”

Jane Carroll Andrade is a program director in NCSL’s Communications Division and liaison to the Legislative Information and Communications Staff Association. These interviews have been edited for length. To read more about our featured staffers, please visit ncsl.org/magazine.