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Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The Fed Chairman and The Press

The recent news conference by Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke was an interesting communications achievement, though it doesn’t contain too many lessons for other government institutions or the private sector.

As Chairman of the US Federal Reserve, Bernanke is in essence the CEO of the institution.  Despite the fact that his peers - the heads of the nation's central banks have held news conferences - this was a first for a chairman of the US Fed.

Bernanke has been very careful in how he has engaged with the public, aka tax payers. As opposed to his frequent rounds of testimony in Congress (one might call this a media interview when covered by C-Span and the snippets in the press), Bernanke's first TV press interaction was in March 2009 with a feature on "60 Minutes."  This was a great "get" by CBS.  And while there were a number of hard questions in the middle of the financial crisis, it was more of a profile than a "gotcha" interview.  Interviewer Scott Pelley was tough but respectful.

The next major Bernanke exchange was a three-part series on PBS with Jim Lehrer, a town hall in Kansas City.  There were good substantive questions from citizens, but it wasn't an in-depth reported piece.

That brings us to the recent Press Briefing.  The communications team at the Fed did a very good job in staging the event.  It was announced well in advance, in essence making news for just the fact of the briefing.  The Federal Reserve headquarters in Washington is such a historic building that it almost created its own civil atmosphere and tone that was different than if the press briefing had been held at the National Press Club or at university in Washington.

Here are a few observations:
  1. Bernanke had a relatively long opening statement that was not directed at the general public.  The Chairman spoke in the language that regulators and markets understand. If he had simplified it more, it might have been misinterpreted by those critical constituencies who regularly parse his statements like tea leaves.
  2. Bernanke did the unusual move of sitting for the briefing rather than standing.  This is not recommended for most others holding a press conference. It is okay at a reporter round table.
  3. While this was held before the traditionally tough press, the reality is that Chairman Bernanke gets equally tough questions from Congress and at frequent Fed meetings. I did not think there were any zany or unpredictable questions.
  4. There was a risk that given his lack of experience in such a Q&A forum, Bernanke might have made a mistake that would have had "market consequences". If he had made a mistake - which he apparently didn't -  I am sure the Fed communications team would have been ready with a rapid correction.
  5. It was clear that he had practiced. None of the questions appeared to throw him.  The language in the answers to reporters' questions was a little more consumer-friendly, but was on-point and did not descend into platitudes.
  6. Prediction:  Next press conference will have tougher questions and reporters wanting to do more follow-ups.




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