The Five Minute Interview: Mason Press Secretary Dan Walsch
Posted: July 27, 2007 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am
By Robin Herron
Dan Walsch is a person who preaches what he practices.
An adjunct professor in Mason’s Department of Communication, where he teaches public relations courses, Walsch is also the university’s press secretary, reporting to Vice President for University Relations Christine LaPaille.
Although Mason’s Media Relations Office, headed by John Blacksten, has a public relations team that handles news media inquiries in specialized areas, Walsch is a generalist who handles questions regarding university policy, personnel, student issues or “big picture” matters. And while he doesn’t give daily press briefings like the White House’s Tony Snow, Walsch does take questions from the media, by phone and in person, on a daily basis.
Walsch, who joined Mason’s media relations staff more than 18 years ago, also writes news releases and articles for Mason publications such as the alumni magazine, Mason Spirit, and the Mason Gazette. He recently organized a briefing between Mason President Alan Merten and national and local media, including representatives from the Associated Press and the Washington Post.
What kinds of media calls and issues do you handle?
For the most part, the kind of calls I receive haven’t changed all that much since I first arrived. Reporters still call looking for experts on various topics, asking to speak to President Merten or other top administrators, or looking for the university to comment on issues. There are times when reporters call about a particular issue but are not sure whom they should speak with. When that happens we try to give them guidance. Fortunately, Mason is blessed with having a solid group of media relations professionals. They have energy, great communication skills and a solid work ethic, and are kind enough to let me ride on their coattails.
What’s the most important aspect of your job as a university spokesperson?
There are two: accuracy and sincerity. Whenever I have a microphone in front of me or there’s a reporter writing down what I say in their notepad, it is essential that what I tell them be accurate. Any mistakes I might make could not only reflect badly on our institution and its people, but also cause real problems in terms of the institution’s credibility, funding or image.
In terms of sincerity, hardly a day passes when something President Merten said when he interviewed for his job over 11 years ago doesn’t run through my mind: “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” Reporters or even members of the general public are not going to give us the attention or support we wish and need unless they believe we as an entity genuinely care about being a good neighbor, care about the welfare of our region, state and nation, and care about doing the absolute best we can as educators. Whenever I speak to reporters or members of the public, I always try to place myself in their shoes and remember that my fundamental job is to help build bridges with them and those they might represent. Consequently, I try my best to be a good listener, be respectful, be honest, and, of course, sincere. On a large scale, we have far too much in common with those we attempt to serve to be otherwise.
Which of your personal attributes make you a good spokesperson?
Perhaps the best answer to that is my love for George Mason University and the fact that I want to do all I can to represent it in the best way possible.
How do you prepare for whatever is around the corner?
I try to stay as engaged with the institution and with as many of its people as possible; big picture stuff and things that may apply only to a few. Since I can’t always know what questions might be asked of me, I feel the more institutional knowledge I can bring to the table, the better I’ll be able to respond to questions. But having said that, I’m never shy about telling someone, “I don’t know,” and then trying to find the answer.
If you were giving advice to someone interested in media relations as a career, what would you tell them?
Go for it! Be part of something in which you believe. How well all of us communicate is the very fabric of our society. If we don’t communicate well, then inevitably a breakdown occurs. Good communicators are bridge builders. Good communication builds and then strengthens those bridges. I hope anyone looking to enter the communications profession will remember that communication is at its best when it unites rather than divides.
I’d like people in the university to call me when … They feel I can be of help.
I’d like people in the university not to call me when … I really cannot think of a reason why I wouldn’t want to hear from anyone at the university.
I wish the media would pay more attention to … Just how much George Mason contributes to the overall welfare of our region.
Exciting things going on at Mason now are … The beginning of a new academic year; the many construction projects underway that, when completed, will change the culture of our institution; and the various research efforts that faculty are doing that address real-world problems.
Mason’s best-kept secret … Is the institution itself. Everyone knows us, of course, but at the same time, few seem to really appreciate just how unique a place we are in terms of structure, flexibility and mindset, and, for that matter, how good we are on so many levels.
My greatest accomplishment to date is … Now and forever I consider myself to be a work in progress and view whatever noteworthy accomplishments I might make to be just around the corner.
The last book I read was … “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,” of course.