How Hope Hicks, Trump's new press-shy communications director, became a White House 'survivor'
She’s a top presidential adviser but a political neophyte. A public relations strategist who shirks publicity. A former model and actress described as camera-shy.
Contradictions abound when it comes to Hope Hicks, the new White House communications director. Case in point: her low-key persona is credited for landing her one of the highest-ranking jobs in the executive mansion.
As the fourth person to assume what’s been described as a “mission impossible” posting in U.S. President Donald Trump’s tumultuous White House, her appointment last week would seem improbable in any other administration.
Yet the daughter of an NFL executive and Democratic legislative aide from Greenwich, Conn., now occupies a desk just outside the Oval Office, devising strategy for the Trump messaging apparatus. Hicks — at 28, the youngest person to assume the communications director role — accepted her promotion in her usual way.
‘She’s been loyal’
It apparently works for her. Hicks is Trump’s longest-standing political aide, serving him since 2014, when she was plucked from doing PR for Ivanka Trump’s fashion line to help run his campaign.
“People, unfairly, will say Donald Trump just likes her because she’s beautiful,” former Trump campaign adviser Sam Nunberg told CBC News in a phone interview from New York.
Though he says he’s “not her friend,” Nunberg understands her appeal. “Hope has the president’s confidence, she’s been loyal, and she understands how to sell this president.”
Hicks and Trump speak on the golf course at his Trump International Golf Links in Aberdeen, Scotland, on June 25, 2016. (Carlo Allegri/Reuters)
Hicks has outlasted three ex-White House comms directors — Sean Spicer (gone after six months), Mike Dubke (three months) and Anthony “the Mooch” Scaramucci (10 days). How she achieved this position despite being seldom seen or heard from is kind of the point, Nunberg said.
“She’s cognizant it’s not about her. It’s about Donald Trump,” he said. “She’s focused on her job and not promoting herself. That’s definitely an asset for the president.”
Drawing too much attention away from Trump can be a career death knell in his White House. Former chief strategist Steve Bannon made the cover of Time magazine before his exit. Scaramucci’s brash manner and penchant for letting off steam with reporters also preceded his demise. He was fired after a profanity-laced interview in the New Yorker.
Hicks is “neither Bannon nor the Mooch. She’s the public relations counsellor who stays out of the limelight,” said Fraser Seitel, a New York University PR instructor and author of The Practice of Public Relations.
“But the president’s problem is he thinks he’s his own best PR man. Actually, he’s his worst PR man, so the deck is stacked way against her to begin with,” Seitel said.
Hicks, whom the president affectionately calls “the Hopester,” avoids televised interviews. Journalists are accustomed to her habit of leaving emails unanswered from when she ran the press shop during Trump’s presidential campaign.
She graduated in 2010 from Southern Methodist University, where she played lacrosse and majored in English. By a twist of fate, her first PR job came by way of actor Alec Baldwin, who now savagely lampoons her boss on Saturday Night Live. In an acting audition, Hicks once read for a part with Baldwin, who later helped her secure an interview at Hiltzik Strategies, the firm that put her in the Trump Organization’s orbit.
Trump told a crowd in December that when he hired Hicks for his campaign, she “knew nothing” about politics. At his final rally during his 2016 victory tour, Trump beckoned Hicks to take the stage.
“You know, she’s a little shy, but that’s OK,” he said, imploring her to “say a couple of words.”
“Hi,” she said, a tremor in her voice. “Merry Christmas, everyone — and thank you, Donald Trump!”
She exited quickly.
As Trump’s comms director, Hicks controls long-range planning and big-picture messaging. If she follows tradition, she’ll be the behind-the-scenes staffer giving final approval over speeches and vetting fact papers. Working with press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, she’ll be a gatekeeper for all reporters wanting access to the president, though Hicks won’t be nearly so visible.
“Think of comms director as ‘product development’ and press secretary as ‘retail sales,'” explained Mike McCurry, the former White House press secretary for president Bill Clinton.
‘Walking into a minefield’
Crucially, Hicks will also need to ensure the president stays on message. And that will be a heavy lift, say PR specialists who are watching how her duties jibe with Trump’s off-the-cuff manner.
She came on board in an interim capacity a day after Trump veered wildly off script and blamed “both sides” for violence at a Charlottesville, Virginia, white-supremacist rally. The president was supposed to be promoting his infrastructure plan.
Hicks, who has no known Twitter presence, is “walking into a minefield” with this position, warns public relations expert David Johnson, CEO of Strategic Vision.
Hicks is shown in a screen grab from Ivanka Trump’s fashion website from 2015, when she was director of communications for the Trump Organization. A ‘typical workday’ for Hicks, the text reads, ‘could include a major meeting, an all-day event or even an out-of-state trip.’ (Screengrab)
“Right now, no one knows what the White House communications strategy is because it fluctuates from day to day based on the president’s Twitter account,” Johnson said.
Unlike the revolving door of White House personnel who may feel like hired hands, Johnson said Hicks’s experience in the Trump Organization gives her clout with the president.
“She’s a survivor,” he said. “Someone more keyed into how Trump operates. That’s her expertise.”
“The president trusts her,” says Don Baer, who once held the same job Hicks now fills, only in the Clinton White House.
“In this position, she’ll also need to be an honest broker,” Baer added, the kind of staffer willing to challenge the president and compel him to speak when he needs to or have restraint when it’s called for.
A test came last week, when top congressional Democrats issued a statement saying Trump had agreed to a deal to help thousands of undocumented immigrants stay in America and possibly forsake his long-promised border wall. The statement went unanswered by Trump for eight hours, leaving his base fuming until he later disputed parts of it.
Nunberg, the former Trump campaign adviser, sees more positive signs. The daily televised White House press briefings have returned under Hicks’s watch. And he hears that Trump surrogates are being contacted more regularly “in a more professional and helpful manner.”
As for how Hicks views the challenges ahead for her communications duties, that’s hard to know. She did not respond to requests for an interview.