First Lady Michelle Obama’s former assistant press secretary discusses working in the White House

Kelsey Donohue, current director of communications at Harvard University’s Institute of Politics, speaks to students at UMass

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First Lady Michelle Obama’s former assistant press secretary discusses working in the White House

Chris McLaughlin

Chris McLaughlin

Chris McLaughlin

Chris McLaughlin

By Chris McLaughlin, Assistant News Editor

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Kelsey Donohue, the former assistant press secretary to First Lady Michelle Obama, joined her former teacher, University of Massachusetts professor Jennie Donohue, in a discussion on her time working in the East Wing of the White House managing public relations, policy initiatives and social media for the first lady.

Jennie Donohue, a senior lecturer and the director of the public relations curriculum within the  Journalism Department, taught Kelsey Donohue, a graduate of Marist College who majored in communications, around eight years ago, during Kelsey’s junior year. Despite sharing a last name, the two are not related, but have since shared a long personal and professional relationship.

During Kelsey’s junior year at Marist, Jennie had Kelsey and her other students produce a communications plan around an individual or company of their choice. This was the first step to Kelsey’s future career working for the first lady.

“The real reason I got the job, I actually credit Jennie Donohue,” Kelsey said.

While classmates chose notable brands such as Nike and Colgate, Kelsey decided to center her project around Michelle Obama.

“And so, I developed this entire communications plan when I was a junior in college and I handed it in, was very proud of it, and believe it or not, two and a half years later, I found myself sitting in the First Lady’s office with the entire communications team for Mrs. Obama,” she said.

Kelsey said when asked how she landed her job at the White House by other staff members, she showed them her junior year project.

“I literally had in my bag, five copies of the communications plan that I had drafted when I was a junior. And I said, ‘Well, you know, I think because I’ve been thinking about this for a long time. That’s why I deserve this job.’ And I went in and handed them each of my communications plans. And while it was a bold move, it definitely worked,” she said.

Kelsey added that her first call after her first day on the job was to Jennie.

In explaining her role as an assistant press secretary in a four-person team in the East Wing, Kelsey compared the experience to notable TV shows set in the White House.

“I hoped every day that my job would not be like ‘House of Cards,’ that I would aim to be like ‘West Wing’ and Allison Janney as ‘C.J. Cregg,’ and I always ended up being like ‘Veep,’” Kelsey said. “I think every single day was this balance of, ‘Oh my gosh, there’s so much going on. There’s everything going on, we’re trying not to let any balls drop, but also we are having so much fun.’ And that was the best part of the job.”

Kelsey and Michelle Obama’s public relations team oversaw her policy initiatives such as “Let’s Move!,” “Joining Forces,” “Let Girls Learn” and “Reach Higher.” Whether it was having Girl Scouts camp out on the South Lawn of the White House for the first time or hosting formal events, Kelsey says her job was the “first line of defense.”

In her daily work routine Kelsey would scan the news cycle, combine press clips and evaluate the social media strategy of the day. This involved knowing who was visiting the White House and using storytelling, such as via social media, to lift up and share stories.

“The White House is the people’s house. So, for us through the first lady’s channels, that maybe doesn’t have to do with the same thing as the White House or @WhiteHouse or @BarackObama,” Kelsey said. “Where they’re talking about [is] the breaking news of the day, the policy initiatives — we got to have fun and really show the life behind, you know, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.”

Kelsey played a key role in integrating the first lady’s policy initiatives with social media, such as running Michelle Obama’s Snapchat account that was created in the last year and a half of the Obama administration and centered around the “Let Girls Learn” initiative.

“The main goal was because we had launched an initiative called ‘Let Girls Learn’ that was focusing on supporting girls’ education around the world, and one of our messaging priorities was making sure that girls here in the U.S. understood the plight of young girls around the world,” Kelsey said.

Kelsey and the other members of the team also coordinated Michelle Obama’s appearance on “Carpool Karaoke” on “The Late Late Show with James Corden,” which also tied in with “Let Girls Learn.”

The approach in this case was to work in conjunction with the United States Agency for International Developement, the State Department and the Peace Corps while teaming up with songwriter Diane Warren and artists such as Chloe x Halle and Missy Elliott to create a song about women’s empowerment where the proceeds would go to the Peace Corps.

Instead of channeling the initiative through a more traditional outlet such as the New York Times, the team decided to work with James Corden and “Carpool Karaoke” as a strategic approach, due to the popularity of the platform in spreading their message in a fun and engaging way, while also leveraging the music industry. However, arranging the ride proved complicated, according to Kelsey.

“When we explained this, the Secret Service were saying, ‘Okay, so you want the First Lady of the United States to get in a car, with a foreigner, with nobody else in the car with her?’ Like, that’s actually a lot of barriers to jump through,” Kelsey explained.

In the end, the ride involved Corden driving Obama around the South Lawn in circles for around a half hour due to logistical concerns, but ultimately proved successful, racking up 72 million views on YouTube as of today.

Kelsey also worked in connection with other members of the first family including President Barack Obama and the family’s dogs Bo and Sunny. In one particular event, also involving the Secret Service, the White House partnered with Disney in creating a Star Wars event for military families, and in capturing the moment for social media, Kelsey had the dogs play fetch with characters from the movie franchise.

“I’m like 24 years old, a staffer with my iPhone running around the Rose Garden trying to get Bo and Sunny and these stormtroopers, and the President was coming out of the Oval Office and he was going back to the residence,” Kelsey explained. “And I have Secret Service yelling at me to clear R2-D2, stormtroopers, Darth Vader and Bo and Sunny, and I’m like only one person.”

“We’re in the Rose Garden and I’m trying to corral Bo and Sunny and I’m trying to get this content on social, too. At the same time R2-D2 got stuck on a rock in the Rose Garden.”

“And Secret Service is yelling at me, ‘You need to move, ma’am,’ ‘Kelsey, you need to move your party, you need to move.’ We know the agents, we know everybody and I’m trying to corral R2-D2 and Bo and Sunny and all this stuff,” she added. “And the president thought it was the funniest thing in the world that I was like frantically running around.”

Despite the many fun times, the job also proved to be a full-time effort on the part of the staff. Kelsey explained that in her time as assistant press secretary, her then-boyfriend, now husband, was serving in Afghanistan and her father also died, noting how personal lives still impacted those working in the East Wing, regardless of their commitment to the work.

To aid in this, Kelsey added that the tight-knit team would also take time for “human moments” where they would act as a support system for one another, including Michelle Obama herself, who Kelsey said would often inquire about her boyfriend while he was deployed.

Kelsey, a native New Yorker and only child, was raised by her father who was an artist and said that her family was never very political, making the transition into politics and public service a bit of an unknown. Despite considering a career as a high school history teacher, she always had an interest in politics and government in addition to education.

To get to the White House, Kelsey was aided in transition by her start at the U.S. Department of Education, which she described as “the perfect place to combine all of these interests.” Kelsey additionally worked in roles at the U.S. State Department and EMILY’s List, a group that seeks to put pro-choice Democratic women in office.

Since leaving the White House, Kelsey managed communications at Handshake, a career network for college students on the job hunt, and now serves as communications director at the Institute of Politics at Harvard University.

In her advice to students to build their skills and resumes, Kelsey pointed out several examples of activities students can do to prepare for careers post-graduation, but stressed her time as a tour guide at Marist playing a key role in preparing her for public relations.

“I know it sounds silly, but being a tour guide really prepared me to answer tough questions from parents,” she said. “It showcased to internship coordinators that I was trusted by the university to speak on behalf of the university. And for that they knew that they could trust me.”

She also told students that when she looks through resumes for public relations positions, she looks for experience running social media for campus organizations. Kelsey added that once out in the real world, building rapport with the press and not just having transactional relationships, despite differing objectives, is key.

“You’re spending 12-hour days together, you’re traveling on the road, you know, you want to get to know about them,” she said. “So yes, the AP reporter, I knew about where her daughter was going to college, I knew that the CBS producer’s son was up for a tennis championship that one time, and … we got to know each other. They were also invested in me, too. And we kind of built this rapport.”

The event was hosted in the Journalism Hub in Integrative Learning Center and was co-hosted by the new UMass Public Relations Club, founded in September.

“We’re a pre-professional organization that’s a part of the Journalism Department,” said Julie Harrington, a senior majoring in journalism and sociology and the director of the club.

“We’re trying to give students the opportunity to learn about public relations outside of the classroom and just give them events to go to, and speakers to listen to, you know, just give them opportunities to learn more about it other than just sitting in the classroom.”

Harrington said the club is always looking for new members and is open to all majors, who are encouraged to join. Harrington added Jennie played a pivotal role in establishing the PR Club at UMass earlier this semester through her experience in making the public relations curriculum for the department.

When asked about her opinions on the event, Harrington said, “I loved it. I think [Kelsey is] so inspiring and she’s so amazing. She’s so young in her career and it’s really amazing to see somebody who has done so much, in such high-pressure situations, and she’s really thrived and kind of paved the way, I think, for people in government to be using social media in like a more fun, innovative way. So, I think it’s really cool to see and really good to talk to her.”

Chris McLaughlin can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @ChrisMcLJournal.