Meet the Secret Powerbrokers of D.C.: Five Top Women in Communications
From Michelle Obama’s right-hand woman to a whistleblower in Congress, five women in communications tell Abigail Pesta their secrets.
The Right-Hand Woman Semonti Stephens, 30 Deputy Communications Director to Michelle Obama
The job: I help the first lady get the word out about her work on issues such as childhood obesity and military families. I do a lot of creative planning—I'll work with a magazine that wants Mrs. Obama on the cover, or with a TV show like Extreme Makeover Home Edition, which we did recently to help a female war veteran build a home and resource center for others in need. And sometimes, my team and I have to rescue the first lady from being tackled by hundreds of kids who want to hug her at a jumping-jack contest at the White House.
The daily rundown: I try to get up at 6 a.m. to go to the gym—some days I’m successful, most days I'm not. My day is a mix of events and strategic-planning meetings with the first lady, along with managing a storm of media requests. As the workday winds down, usually around 7 p.m., I’ll meet up with my husband at the metro; we'll head home, eat dinner, watch TV. If nothing urgent is happening with work, I’ll grab a fashion magazine and go to bed at 10:30, with both of my BlackBerrys—one for work, one for personal use—plugged in on my nightstand.
Crazy adventure: Last spring, Mrs. Obama made a surprise visit to a school in D.C., walking onto the football field to join hundreds of students in a flash-mob dance. The kids shrieked when they saw her—it was pandemonium.
Best part of the job: I get to walk into the White House every day and work for the first lady. Need I say more?
Worst part of the job: Being glued to my BlackBerry.
What it's like to work with Michelle Obama: She is one of the most inspiring, kind, and passionate leaders I’ve had the opportunity to work for. She encourages us to be creative in our ideas and hardworking in reaching our goals. Regardless of how busy she is or how packed an event is, she’ll greet you with a smile and thank you for your work—she makes the long hours worth it.
Proudest accomplishment: On a countrywide tour to highlight how communities are supporting military families, I got to work with a woman who runs Operation Shower, a group that throws baby showers for military moms. The first lady and Dr. Jill Biden delivered some baskets of baby gifts to new moms on the tour, and their faces just light up. I felt proud to be a part of it.
Greatest challenge: Balancing work and life. I get advice from experienced working women—including the first lady—but I haven’t quite mastered it.
The Whistleblower Becca Glover Watkins, 29 Press Secretary, House Oversight and Government Reform Committee
The job: The Oversight Committee investigates waste, fraud, and abuse in the federal government. My job is to inform the public about our findings, by getting the news out to the media.
The daily rundown: When the House is in session, the pace is frenetic. The committee’s chairman, Rep. Darrell Issa, expects his staff to take an aggressive approach to making sure Americans get the facts on where government isn’t delivering on its mandate. Right now a big focus of the committee is an investigation into Operation Fast and Furious, the government-run sting operation aimed at preventing firearms from being trafficked into Mexico. As part of the sting, thousands of guns were actually trafficked into Mexico, and those guns went to drug cartels. Our work on projects like this means our days can be very long, so we keep the local Chinese restaurants in business. I usually start early, at 6:15 a.m., when I read the “overnights,” the news stories that come out while we sleep. I try to get home at a reasonable hour to see my husband and our dog, Poppy, but “reasonable” is a moving target: it usually means 8 or 9 p.m.
Crazy adventure: Chairman Issa has an ability to escape from aides assigned to accompany him during events. You have to pay attention to where he is because if you don’t, he’ll slip away and stop in at another office or event. Nothing’s more nerve-wracking than not knowing where he is 10 minutes before he’s set to be on national television in front of millions of people. But he always makes it on time with a huge grin on his face. I’ve gotten used to the challenge of keeping track of him now, but there were a few times when I thought he had been kidnapped.
Crisis management: Subjects of investigations and their allies sometimes try to hurl retaliatory accusations at the chairman to try to change the subject, so we have to bat down these accusations. Step one in every scenario is simple: get the facts. The accusations rarely turn out to be true.
Best part of the job: It's easy to feel good about the singular and incredibly important job the committee does: exposing bad government and fixing it.
Worst part of the job: The hours. With the 24-hour news cycle, there’s rarely time for a break.
Proudest accomplishment: When I first started with the committee, we had just begun the investigation into Operation Fast and Furious. With our own findings, along with the findings of investigative journalists, we’ve been able to expose this scandal, when the Justice Department had initially denied it. I’m proud of helping to get this failure of government the attention it deserves.
Greatest challenge: I have no sense of direction, and the tunnels under the Capitol are completely bewildering to me. The garages are even worse. It’s shocking that I can find the office every day.
The ActivistStephanie L. Young, 27Communications Director, Congressional Black Caucus
The job: I juggle press operations for the Congressional Black Caucus, which works to make sure that all Americans, regardless of race, have a voice in Congress and beyond. I arrange interviews with the media from dawn till dark for the 43 caucus members, so their voices are heard on the key issues of the day.
The daily rundown: I’m embarrassed to say that I don’t usually eat breakfast during the week, but on the odd occasion that I find time, the menu consists of granola cereal with fruit at my desk, while reading the day’s news. I’m trying to convince my body to hit the gym, and it listens occasionally, but it’s difficult when I go to work early and don’t normally leave the office until after 7 p.m. Most nights I grab dinner with my boyfriend, and more recently, I’ve actually started cooking.
Crisis management: This past summer, African-American unemployment skyrocketed to 16.9 percent, and the caucus launched a jobs initiative called For the People, a series of job fairs and town halls in five cities. The final stop was in L.A. This was the largest job fair yet—10,000 people, along with every major news outlet. It was at least 95 degrees outside, and the fair was on a huge, sprawling campus. I had to get caucus members back and forth to interviews—and what happens? My BlackBerry crashes. So in the blazing heat, I'm forced to run all over the place, checking with reporters, fielding questions, arranging photo shoots. I'm running around like a crazy person. Eventually my BlackBerry comes back to life—conveniently, toward the end of the day.
Best part of the job: I work with the brightest, most charismatic members in the Congress: living legends like Emanuel Cleaver, chairman of the caucus, and John Lewis, the civil-rights icon. And John Conyers and Charlie Rangel, founders of the caucus, and Maxine Waters, the legendary fighter for human rights. All 43 members have made an impact on this nation and on our world.
Worst part of the job: My BlackBerry never sleeps, unless, of course, it’s dead.
Proudest accomplishment: Working on the For the People initiative. I felt proud to help show America the face of unemployment, while working to change it.
Greatest challenge: We move at such lightening speed that I forget to slow down and appreciate what I’m doing. Recently we were so busy scrambling to plan a caucus meeting with President Obama that I didn’t feel the magnitude of it all until I walked into the White House. At that moment, I realized I’m living, working, walking, and speaking in history. My greatest challenge: being present.
The Correspondent Norah O’Donnell, 37 Chief White House Correspondent, CBS News
The job: I cover the White House—where the president goes, I go. My reporting appears on CBS Evening News With Scott Pelley, along with CBS This Morning, Face the Nation, and CBS Sunday Morning.
The daily rundown: Every day is unpredictable; I rarely have a set schedule. On the days when President Obama isn’t traveling, I get up around 5:30 a.m. and start reading the newspapers online. By 6:30 a.m., my three kids are awake and I’m playing short-order cook for breakfast. It's a mad dash to get them to school by 9. Before I head out the door, I make a pitch to CBS Evening News; I judge what I think to be the day’s big story coming out of the White House and send a note to the show's senior producer. Sometimes that pitch ends up being the story I work on throughout the day and report on live at 6:30 p.m. Other times, the events of the day dictate a completely different story altogether. After my report, I try to make it home by 7:15. I usually aim to make it to bed by 10:00 and continue reading there—a book or a weekly newsmagazine—for an hour. As for the BlackBerry, it’s a daily struggle not to look at it in the middle of the night.
Crazy adventure: I traveled with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld all around the world after the September 11th attacks, and I was with him on his first visit to Afghanistan. We landed at Bagram Air Field, just months after the war began, in a C-17 aircraft. When we exited the military plane, there were hundreds of Northern Alliance soldiers dressed in old Russian uniforms with Kalashnikov rifles. Secretary Rumsfeld met with the U.S. soldiers there, and they wanted to know when the military would fly in some mobile shower units. For a month, our soldiers had been bathing with baby wipes, in the absence of any running water. I grew up in a military family, but it reminded me once again how hard our men and women in the military work under difficult circumstances.
Best part of the job: Covering the White House is a front-row seat to history. It’s a privilege to report on the top news stories of the day. I have the opportunity to ask the president questions directly—and to try to hold top government officials accountable. It's not a responsibility I take lightly.
Worst part of the job: Keeping up with the president and his travels across the country presents a huge challenge for any White House correspondent. The long hours mean time away from my family. Still, I wouldn’t trade it for the world.
Proudest accomplishment: Without a doubt, my three children. My twins, Grace and Henry, are 4 years old. My daughter Riley is 3 years old—just 13 months behind them.
Greatest challenge: Finding time to relax!
The Gossip GirlKarin Tanabe, 31Reporter, Politico
The job: I’m a reporter for Click, Politico's gossip and lifestyle section. Political gossip sounds like I’m chasing after Speaker of the House John Boehner all the time, begging him to admit to a spray-tan addiction. And in fact, I might do that, but I also cover Hollywood celebrities who come to town.
The daily rundown: My alarm goes off at 6 a.m. and I grab my BlackBerry and start checking email. I turn on some bad music, like Sounds of Ibiza Volume 6, to get me going. From 6 to 9 a.m., I’m checking the news, watching the morning shows, and writing items for the site. Getting news items up early is important, so I try not to take a breakfast break before 9. Then I’m all about green tea, coffee, Greek yogurt, and some carb I promise to burn off later. I generally work until 6 p.m., but there are often after-work events to cover and celebrities to chase around town. The hours have made me a really good workout multitasker; I do long runs on weekends and cross-fit with a former Olympic bobsledder twice a week, and I’ve started running home from work when I can—I just do a quick change, strap on my CamelBak water pack, and take to the urban jungle.
Crazy adventure: The White House Correspondents' Dinner, or the "Washington Prom," as we like to call it, is the craziest celebrity-filled weekend in D.C. I've seen some very "not your daddy’s Washington" things happen there, like Jonathan Rhys Meyers drunk, drunk, drunk and smooching a coat-check girl. Oh, and a crowd of women chasing Jon Hamm into the bathroom.
Crisis management: I was once covering an event where a doyenne of Washington society turned to the media and screamed, “Get your body bags out of my home!” She was referring to our bags of notebooks, recorders, and cameras. The interview proceeded when we removed the offensive items, but I had to type up my notes on my cellphone.
Best part of the job: When celebrities come to Washington, they’re usually here to bring attention to a cause they care about. I love that I get to interview the bigwigs when they’re using their star power for good.
Worst part of the job: You can’t force someone to talk to you. Some politicians don’t want to talk about their personal lives, and plenty of celebrities just refuse to chat with the press. Ben Affleck is famous in Washington for saying "heck no" to interviews. Jennifer Aniston stayed totally mum when she was here in October. Sometimes that great quote you’re salivating for is just not going to happen.
Proudest accomplishment: When Sarah Silverman told me I had great hair. Just kidding, but that was kind of awesome. One of my most “wow” moments on the job was when I did a lengthy interview with Robert Redford. Out of Africa is one of my favorite movies, and I had a grand time picturing him as Denys Finch Hatton flying high above Kenya. At 75, the Sundance Kid still has that “it” factor.
Greatest challenge: Since my work requires getting celebrities to talk politics, I’m often interrupting them and throwing questions out of left field. Richard Gere will be speaking passionately about Tibet and I’ll have to cut him off and say, “So, what are your thoughts on Mitt Romney?”