Learning You Can Make a Difference
By Krista Rinehart, CSG Leadership Center Coordinator
Historians often credit John Kennedy’s decision to pursue a career in politics to growing up in a home with nightly political discussions and quizzes.
Brian Selander had a similar thought-provoking and educational background that also led to a career in public service, although it was a less direct route. Selander initially went into journalism.
“I grew up in a suburban home full of debate and pleasant disagreement where you had to learn not only to make your point, but to defend it,” said Selander, Delaware Gov. Jack Markell’s chief strategy officer. “That’s probably why, for as long as I can remember, I have read the paper every day to learn the facts and why I wanted more than anything to be the one reporting them.”
He got an early opportunity at a regional Gannett paper when he was 15. The editor, Carol Hunter, may not have known how young he was, he admits. “But it was pretty clear that I wasn’t exactly finishing a master’s,” he said.
Hunter gave him a shot for several years after school and on weekends to report for The Courier News inXX. He reported on everything from new skateboard ordinances to a measles outbreak at Rutgers University.
The move from journalism to politics came down to a core desire to make a difference, he said. This desire led him to local public service as a student member of the board of education and through work getting a friend elected to the school board—an election that led Selander into a fortuitous conversation.
That’s how Selander came to the attention of Bob Smith, the deputy leader in the New Jersey Assembly.
“When I was 18 and headed to college, he asked me to come work for him, but I told him I wanted to be a journalist so I could make a difference ,” Selander said. “He told me ‘Well, you can make a bigger difference writing laws than you can writing about them.’ And that sold me.”
Over the ensuing years, Selander has worked on a number of political campaigns and in various capacities for officials, including New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley and former Delaware Gov. Tom Carper. He also dabbled in journalism from time to time, working for both print and radio news outlets. In the end, Governor-elect Jack Markell’s appeal to serve at a critical time brought Selander squarely into the public service realm.
“Much like Assemblyman Smith did 14 years earlier,” said Selander, “Governor-elect Markell made it clear in 2008 that with the national economy collapsing and budget deficits soaring, public service mattered more than ever and this was a critical time for me to come back.”
Since then, Selander has dedicated his time to putting his communications skills to work crafting the governor’s message. Selander’s success in crafting effective messages and creating a positive public image for Markell has earned him the recognition of colleagues across his state. As a result, he often finds himself doling out advice regarding media strategy and effective communication techniques. His increased recognition as one of Delaware’s rising stars earned him a spot in the 2011 Toll Fellows class.
One key he’s found to staying on message is to choose a sufficiently broad and compelling central focus that can easily be applied to a number of other areas. For example, in the current economic and political climate, Selander has found that jobs are the central message.
“The issue that matters more than anything is jobs,” said Selander. “People who have them are concerned about losing them and people out of work need to know that your top priority is doing everything you can to get them back to work. If you’re not talking about that, then you are probably not connecting with your constituents as effectively as you could.”
While dozens of issues face policymakers every day, almost all of them can be tied to jobs, Selander said.
“ For example, ensuring kids graduate from stronger schools means they’ll be more likely to succeed in the workplace ,” he said. “A healthy environment is important in its own right, but it’s also critical because companies want to locate in places with clean air and water, where employees can live healthy and productive lives.”
Once an official has selected a talking point such as jobs, Selander insists the key to crafting a compelling message around that talking point is authenticity.
“A compelling message is also an authentic message—one that stems from your own experience,” advised Selander.
To support his claim, Selander need look no further than his experiences working for Markell . Selander admits Markell hasn’t been able to solve all of Delaware’s fiscal and economic problems, but he’s been authentic in sharing his message and, as a result, has retained public support.
“Things are still really rough,” said Selander. “Some of the foundations of our state’s economy—areas like manufacturing, finance and even our pharmaceutical industry—face systemic problems we can’t solve overnight. But because Gov. Markell keeps sharing his constituent’s core values, speaks from the heart about his economic concerns and is making it clear that he’s using his head to tap personal experiences creating jobs in the private sector, he’s remained remarkably popular despite some impossible circumstances.”
Selander will share these and other tips he has learned on crafting a compelling message, sticking to your message and how to deal with media pushback during a session at CSG’s upcoming National Leadership Conference in La Quinta, Calif. The session, “Crafting and Controlling your Message,” is sponsored by CSG’s National Leadership Center and will take place on Saturday, May 19. Visit the CSG website for more information.