Five Lessons from the White House Correspondents’ Dinner

The association that puts on the celebrity-filled dinner has made quite a mark on DC's political and social scene. And while you may not be able to pull off something with this kind of cultural pull, you can certainly take a few pointers from the "nerd prom."

The White House Correspondents’ Association knows how to throw a party, and that shindig, the White House Correspondents’ Dinner (WHCD), has become far more than a journalism hobnob.

The association, currently under the leadership of Fox News chief White House correspondent Ed Henry, has seen the event become an even bigger pop-cultural touchstone this year than ever before. Even the celebrity-focused E! Network showed up, proving that journalism, politics, and Hollywood make for interesting friends at least one night a year.

While you may not get the big-name celebrities at your next event, you can certainly pick up a few tips from this year’s festivities:

Embrace your perception: While the WHCD is full of policy wonks and government figures, it’s certainly not the “nerd prom,” as the event has been called in recent years. Nevertheless, the dinner picked up the nickname, and its attendees ran with it. While not every event can carry the weight of self-deprecation, it’s easy to see why the nickname took off: It’s shareable as shorthand and captures the spirit of the WHCD, if not its exact nature. Plus, in the age of Twitter, the easier to share, the better. Your association’s events should be good enough to shorthand.

Counter-programming works: The most high-profile media outlet that didn’t make it to Saturday’s event? Easy. BuzzFeed. While the ultra-popular site was the subject of the on-stage action (notably, the site’s editor-in-chief, Ben Smith, played a key role in the much-discussed “House of Cards” parody, shown above), it pulled off an interesting trick. Unable to buy a table at the event, BuzzFeed instead hosted its own party at the same time as the dinner, proving it’s possible to draw attention even when the main event is going in a different direction.

Defend your identity: While the dinner has seen its share of celebrity attendees in recent years, the White House Correspondents Association wasn’t ready to turn its event into an awards show, complete with swag bags. (Though it did have a red carpet, the main people at the event are still journalists with ethical standards to uphold.) So when a company, GBK, announced it was going to launch an Oscars-style “gift lounge” related to the event, the association threatened a lawsuit over the use of its trademark. GBK quickly backtracked: “We truly did not intend to lead anyone to believe that GBK’s charity lounge was in any way affiliated with the White House Correspondents Association Dinner,” the group noted in an apology to Henry. While the event went on anyway, the branding was removed.

Don’t lose sight of the mission: Underlying all the glitz is the real purpose of the WHCD: to raise scholarships money for journalism students, to the tune of about $150,000 a year. This year’s college fund got a boost after late-night TV personality Conan O’Brien, the night’s featured comedian, donated his fee. During his year as the association’s president, Henry said, “the most rewarding part has been working on scholarships because I wouldn’t be where I am without people along the way helping me get into college, helping me be able to afford college, and it’s even more expensive now,” he told Politico.

Don’t upstage the star: The reason that the event draws attention each year? Simply put, the president is usually the person who gets the biggest laughs. While in rare cases the commander-in-chief may find himself upstaged (most notably during the 2006 WHCD, when Stephen Colbert’s blistering satire drew online cackles for weeks after the fact), usually the event works best if the president is telling the best jokes. And while O’Brien had some good lines, President Barack Obama arguably had better ones, most notably quips targeting Super PACs and his own friendship with Jay-Z, whose recent trip to Cuba proved controversial. Now, O’Brien could have tried to upstage the president, but in the end it might have been better to let the guest of honor get the headlines.

What was your biggest takeaway from this year’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner? Let us know your take in the comments.

White House Correspondents' Association president Ed Henry, shown with President Barack Obama. (YouTube screenshot)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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