Karen Finney recently served as Senior Advisor for Communications and Political Outreach and Senior Spokesperson for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. She was the first and only African American spokeswoman of the Democratic National Committee (DNC). She has also worked to improve public education through her work with the New York City Board of Education and Scholastic, Inc.
Harvard Political Review: You first got involved in politics because of your interest in improving public education. Why are you still interested in and involved in politics today?
Karen Finney: Politics is a way to effect change, and I see it as a way of public service. I have always worked for [candidates] I believe in, people who I thought would make a difference. You can make a difference [through politics], and that is part of why I wanted to come to the Kennedy School and part of the reason I am still involved.
HPR: What have been some of the biggest changes in political communications throughout your career?
KF: The sheer volume of social media platforms and how much faster everything moves. It is a mixed bag. On the one hand, you can get information in real time as something is happening, but sometimes, that skews what you think about what really happened and what really matters. [The growing number of platforms] means the platforms that you have to be able to communicate on have changed and expanded. It is not just three television stations and a few key newspapers and magazines; it is Snapchat, Twitter, television, and a lot more.
HPR: You were the Director of Communications and the spokesperson of the DNC for several years. How, if at all, do you think the Democratic Party should change its message moving forward?
KF: It is less about changing the message [and more] about making sure that we have people on the ground from the party: that we rebuild our state parties and are actively engaged in campaigns and in our communities and neighborhoods every day, not just several months or weeks before an election. When I was at the DNC, Howard Dean was the Chair, and he implemented the 50-State Strategy. One of the things that he used to say, that I really agree with, is that it is a sign of respect to show up and ask for someone’s vote, even if you know that you will not get it. In too many parts of the country where we have neglected the Democratic Party, people are not even hearing our side. They are only hearing one side. This is something the party is really focused on right now: rebuilding the infrastructure of the party so that we have a plan that is about being in communities and engaging with people. That gives you a much better sense of what is going on day-to-day and what is going on in local politics and state politics.
HPR: You have worked with the Clintons for a lot of your career. Why did you first become interested in working with them?
KF: When I was first interested in becoming involved in federal politics, I was working at a minimum-security facility for teenage girls, and this was when gang culture was really exploding in Los Angeles. I know there has been some controversy about some of the things [Bill Clinton] did while he was president, but during the campaign and at the time, I liked what he had to say. A lot of the rhetoric that people were using was that these kids were bad seeds, and I did not believe that. I think we owe it to kids to do everything we can to help them have the best lives they can. I felt strongly about that.
Then, quite honestly, I got to know Hillary, and I thought she was so cool. I was raised by a single, working mom, and she kind of reminded me of my mom. That was a time when a lot of women did not necessarily have a professional career outside of the home, so seeing that was cool. Her chief of staff was a woman named Maggie Williams, who used to be at the Institute of Politics. It was incredible to see an African American woman as a chief of staff. Not only was she Hillary’s chief of staff during the campaign and in the White House, but she was also an advisor to President [Bill] Clinton. As a young woman, that was just an incredible experience to be around so many smart, strong women who were so determined to make a difference. One of Hillary’s big things that she worked on was economic empowerment and education of women and girls, something that I care dearly about. As a young woman, I felt very supported in politics.
HPR: At the beginning of the 2016 campaign, you mentioned that one of your biggest challenges was that Hillary Clinton was the most unknown, well-known person in the world. Do you still think that is true?
KF: I do. People who have read [What Happened] feel like they have gotten some new insights into her, so maybe that has changed a little bit. One of the big challenges is that there is so much that people think they know about her based on propaganda: not just from the right, but also based on assumptions. When she was First Lady, she faced criticisms for being a ‘career woman.’ I thought that was ridiculous. The criticisms have changed over time, but there is a lot that people do not know.
One of the stories I tried to tell about her was work that she did in Dothan, Alabama, working on school desegregation. A lot of people had no idea that was something she worked on. That is part of politics and public life. There is so much information that is out there about you, on so many different platforms, but that is not necessarily the whole story of who you are. I think that is part of the challenge in politics going forward. How can we make sure people connect with you and get a sense of who you really are as a person?
HPR: How has President Trump’s use of social media changed political communications?
KF: In many, many very dramatic ways. For example, it is impossible for the Trump administration to have any effective kind of communication strategy. You will have one person saying something in the briefing with reporters. You may have a cabinet secretary get asked a question about the same issue, and they give a different answer. Then, President Trump tweets something totally different from what both people said. It has created this atmosphere of unpredictability and instability, and it is part of why some people question his fitness for office. The biggest change is that this administration is not consistently putting forward one vision. It is not good for the country, but it has certainly changed not just political communications, but [also] communications in general.
HPR: Do you think there is a difference between being media-savvy and using media responsibly?
KF: Absolutely. I think President Trump is media-savvy, but he is also a snake oil salesman. He knows branding and how to sell a product. I do not think he knows how to work well with others. He is used to just throwing out orders and having people do what he says rather than trying to work together. One of the things that is disappointing, that we saw in the 2016 election, is all the algorithms, bots, and all these ways that fake news is created and disseminated. Initially, what was so powerful about all these social media platforms was that they were ways to connect with people. I remember Meetups, where you could connect with people about issues you cared about and share information and strategies. In some ways, it was like the creation of the printing press. It opened access of information to everybody in such an incredible way. That was the core of the idea, and it is being perverted and weaponized. I think that is very dangerous. When you are a leader, authenticity of social media is very important. Reporters have said that one of the things they value about President Trump’s tweets is that they know it is him tweeting. It is a great thing for leaders to use technology to be more transparent and accountable to people, but not as a weapon, the way that I think President Trump does.
HPR: Looking forward, who do you see as some of the most media-savvy politicians?
KF: One of the people who is very good is Senator Cory Booker from New Jersey. He campaigned with Hillary Clinton a lot in 2016, so I got an up-close look at how he does his social media. He did this when he was mayor as well. He used it to talk about what he was doing or what was going on, but he also used it to give people a behind-the-scenes look, like what it is like to be sitting in a holding room. He also uses it for very substantive issues, some of the issues he is debating in the Senate. I think he has done an interesting job with that.
HPR: You have worked in both the public sector and the private sector. What do you see as being the intersection between the two?
KF: There is a way that the government and the private sector can work together for the public good. In the private sector, I worked for a company called Scholastic, and it was a very mission-driven company. They have a very close relationship with teachers, and they work hard to work with teachers to create materials that are consistent with what teachers and students need. They work hard to come up with different ways to use technology to customize an educational experience for a child. As part of that, you can work with the government and better understand where the policy shift is going. Then, we can create a product that is socially responsible, but it will also help kids meet the standards they need to meet. There is a whole host of other ways, particularly around sustainability, where we could do a better job with this.
HPR: What are your career plans looking forward?
KF: I do not know. I am loving being here at Harvard. I am enjoying the students. I am hearing so many great conversations and questions. It is very inspiring. Your generation is the generation that is going to have to solve these issues, so I am counting on you. I would like to continue to do work that empowers the next generation of leaders and organizations. It is so important that these organizations that are creating new pathways for people to get activated and engaged succeed. That is something I am interested in. I would like to help elect candidates that are going to do good things. That is something I am still interested in.
Image Credit: Flickr/New America
This interview has been edited and condensed.