Winner's Edge

Focused on strategic communications

Helping Launch the White House Office of Public Engagement

The Obama administration has often spoken of encouraging greater citizen participation in the federal government, but many have wondered just how that would work in real life. I found out, when earlier this year, one of my colleagues, Bim Ayandele, was asked by the Obama Administration to help with the launch of the White House’s Office of Public Engagement (OPE). Here are some of Bim’s reflections on his experience working in the White House for three months this spring:

Regardless of one’s brand of politics, being asked by the Presidency to help out during a new Administration’s first 100 days is an honor. This was a particularly stressful period for White House staffers, because they had to deal with major issues on multiple fronts, pursue an ambitious set of goals, and operate within tight budgetary constraints.

Non-politicos are now familiar with OPE due to the recent media attention surrounding the announcement that actor Kal Penn would be joining the department. But what many don’t know is that OPE’s precursor, OPL (Office of Public Liaison), has existed in some form or another for over 30 years. However, historically OPL has been perceived by many as a pathway to the White House only for lobbyists and powerful special interests. In recent years, the department was often seen as a tool for leveraging allies to support previous Administrations’ top-down agendas.

President Obama expands OPE’s role
During his inauguration, President Obama stated very clearly that “our commitment to openness means more than simply informing the American people about how decisions are made. It means recognizing that government does not have all the answers, and that public officials need to draw on what citizens know.” To help fulfill this commitment, the Obama Administration sought to create an expanded role for its OPL, one that would allow it to function as the open front door to the White House, engaging meaningfully with a broad range of constituencies across the country. To help underscore this openness, the Office of Public liaison was re-launched and re-branded as the Office of Public Engagement.

Within this new framework of engagement, the Administration has signaled through both words and actions that it is not just accessible to lobbyists, but that it is serious about supporting the President’s philosophy that, “everyone should get a seat at the table, but no one should be able to buy up all the seats.”

Communicating with the public
My typical OPE workday was often a fascinating mixture of carrying out some of the most important work in the country – helping communicate key policy points to the American people – while at the same time learning my way around the White House and the old Executive Office Building. Some days were particularly intense when I narrowly avoided bumping into the President and various members of the Cabinet as we all hurried from meeting to meeting through the West Wing’s tight hallways and blind corners.

OPE has been working at a breakneck pace since the Inauguration, conducting thousands of meetings with groups that represent the many faces of America. To my surprise, some of the most consistent and emphatic feedback that we received was that many people had never been given the opportunity to engage any White House for the better part of a decade, if at all. This was a message that came not just from the left or right, but from individuals and organizations across the political spectrum. Opening up citizen access to their government is exactly the dynamic that the current Administration is looking to encourage.

On one occasion, for example, an industry organization concerned about the Administration’s position on several issues affecting its members requested a meeting with White House. OPE facilitated the meeting, which resulted in a productive dialogue that enabled the Administration to better understand what the group’s needs were and to take meaningful action to address their concerns. This particular group later provided feedback that even though they may have a difference of opinion with the Administration on some issues, progress was made, and they were pleasantly surprised by the openness and responsiveness of the White House.

While it’s great to be home again and to be back at work at Winner & Associates, I am also very grateful to have had the opportunity to help advance the President’s goal of making government more inclusive, transparent, accountable and responsible.


July 20, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Media Training Before You Make the News

If your company has ever been in the media spotlight, you already know it’s hard to control news coverage. But most companies underestimate their ability to influence what’s written or said about them. Whether preparing your CEO or spokesperson for a television interview, a legislative hearing or a high profile event, or responding to a crisis, you have more control than you might think.
Prepare Before you make the news…
It all starts with an understanding of how the news media function, and what is likely to attract their attention. Now is the time to do a thorough assessment of your company’s strengths and vulnerabilities, and prepare for unexpected events or crises that could damage the company’s reputation or its brands. In the Internet world and the 24-hour global news cycle, even a seemingly small problem in a far-off location can become a significant national or international issue within hours.

An invaluable part of your preparation is media training for your company’s senior management and primary spokespersons. Their performance under pressure can create long-lasting impressions on the media and public.

At our firm, Winner & Associates, our one-on-one or group training focuses on communicating about issues strategically and not just reacting to events. We emphasize developing and implementing communications strategies that support your company’s business goals and objectives. Our formula for success in media interviews and speaking opportunities is:

Preparation + Practice = Performance

We recommend that before you talk to the media, you should identify three or four key messages and practice how you would deliver them. Regardless of any reporter’s agenda, it is your job to deliver these key messages persuasively several times during any encounter with the media. Your ability to do this is enhanced through careful preparation, including mock interviews.
The time to prepare for the media spotlight is before you make the news.

Winner & Associates has had more than 30 years of experience training clients, including senior executives from numerous Fortune 500 companies, for some of the most challenging encounters with the media and other vital audiences. We prepare our clients by showing them in advance how to communicate strategically on issues and by simulating one-on-one interviews, press conferences and other events. We give them the tools they need to understand audiences, anticipate tough questions and craft effective messages.

To schedule a media training session, or learn more, contact Zach Winner at

July 7, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

What is the “Smart Grid” that Obama and Congress Want?

We’ve heard about the “smart grid” in the news and advertising. It’s a part of the new Waxman – Markey Energy Bill, and the President even mentioned it in his inaugural address. It all sounds promising, if a little short on details. So what exactly is a smart grid?


First a quick review of how electricity gets to us.

Electricity travels through wires, sometimes hundreds of miles, from power plants, solar panels and wind farms to homes and businesses. If you imagine these wires are roads, the high voltage lines you see strung on huge metal towers are eight-lane freeways with the capacity to move a large volume of electricity.

Substations are off-ramps, where the high voltage electricity is stepped down by transformers before moving out on lower voltage distribution lines into neighborhoods and commercial zones. Think surface streets.

This complex system was built over decades and has grown with each new wave of development. The responsibility for maintaining the extensive grid belongs to the utilities that use it to deliver electricity. Utilities act both as road crews – building and repairing lines and other system hardware – and as traffic cops – monitoring and controlling the flow of electricity as demand varies by region and fluctuates hour to hour. It’s a big job that includes everything from the critical (finding the source of power outages), to the technical (gathering information about supply and demand throughout the system), to the routine (measuring the amount of power delivered). All these functions have been performed by individuals since electric utilities first began.

Enter the digital age of wireless Internet connections… and the advent of the smart grid.

The smart grid combines technologies, hardware and software applications that make it easier to gather and relay information and respond more quickly to changing conditions.

For the utility, the hardware includes sensors positioned at regular intervals along the lines and transceivers to relay reports of downed lines or points in the system where congestion is occurring, so power can be re-routed. New software will calculate availability of renewable energy sources – when the wind is blowing and where the sun is shining – and factor that into the overall picture, so utilities will be able to maximize the use of renewable sources in the power they generate.

On the consumer side there are a number of “smart home” components that interface with the smart grid. Smart appliances will let you monitor your power usage from any Internet-connected computer and program them to run during off-peak hours or put them on standby when you’re away. Smart fueling will make it possible to charge up electric or plug-in hybrid vehicles at night when electricity is in lower demand and return some of that stored power to the grid at times of the day when it’s most needed. Smart meters will replace meter readers, and price electricity based on the time it’s used. That way, consumers can save money by conserving power and using certain appliances during “off-peak” hours. By logging onto your account with your utility, you’ll be able to check your consumption and decide where to cut back or change usage habits.

That same instant information from the new meters will also be useful to the utility.  A direct connection with your smart appliances will allow utilities to power them down for periods so brief you won’t even notice.  And the cumulative effect over millions of households will help to balance supply and demand, avoid system overloads, and prevent brownouts and blackouts.

Simple, but ingenious, smart grids represent a long range vision for electricity that will make this indispensible service more efficient, responsive and easier on the environment. For those who struggle with change, it’s important to remember that one thing won’t change; At the end of the day, when you turn on the lights, the lights will still go on.

July 2, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment