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Lessons From the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, Part 2: Reinvention

By / May 2, 2019 Author Ron Chernow speaks at this year's White House Correspondents’ Dinner. (Mike Theiler/WHCA)

Last week’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner looked different from years past, with less emphasis on celebrity and more on press freedom. Other associations can take some lessons from the event.

After last year’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner (WHCD), I and many others predicted that the 2019 edition would feel different than 2018.

It turns out that prediction was correct.

Last Saturday, the White House Correspondents’ Association put on an event that returned to its roots—celebrating journalists, their good work, and the First Amendment. And by shedding the layer of provocative humor and celebrity that the dinner had come to be known for, WHCA seems to have delivered an event that won back both members and critics.

Here are two lessons for associations to take away from this year’s WHCD:

A focus on mission will always win over glitz and glamour. Criticism of dinners past came from members who felt that the event was more focused on the celebrities in the room than on the journalists and press freedom that WHCA is dedicated to. That’s why the association tried something new this year.

“This year’s event, with its theme, ‘Celebrating the First Amendment,’ comprised a somewhat reset agenda,” wrote attendee and George Washington University Law School Dean Blake D. Morant, on Forbes.com this week. “The usual gaiety pervaded the event, but given the rather scathing, unrelenting, and damaging critique of the industry by the POTUS, the program built a strong case for the salience of a free and robust press in a true democracy.”

It also seems that WHCA President Olivier Knox got his wish. “When I ran for the job in early 2016, I told folks that I felt the dinner needed a reset, to be more serious, to put the focus back on journalism, on the job of chronicling a presidency and holding it to account,” he said in an interview with The Hill prior to the dinner.

You don’t need the same type of keynoter year after year. Since the first WHCD in 1944, it’s almost always been hosted by a comedian. That first year, it was Bob Hope, and in the years since, hosts have ranged from George Carlin to Wanda Sykes to Seth Meyers. This year, WHCA took a different route, handing the reins over to Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Ron Chernow, author of an in-depth biography of Alexander Hamilton that became the basis for the Broadway musical.

According to The Washington Post, Chernow was funny in his own right—“funny for a historian, anyway”—and scattered anecdotes about presidents’ varying relationships with the press throughout his address. He also implored journalists in the audience to stay committed to the craft, despite the increased criticism they may face from the current administration.

“This is as good a time as any to take stock and rededicate yourself to the highest standards of accuracy and integrity,” he said in his remarks [PDF]. “So be humble, be skeptical, and beware of being infected by some of the things you’re fighting against. The press is a powerful weapon that must always be fired with reluctance and aimed with precision.”

Most important, WHCA showed other associations that you don’t need to be afraid to break away from what you’ve always done, particularly if you have members calling for a change or your industry is dealing with increased criticism.

Have you ever successfully overhauled one of your signature events? Tell us about it in the comments.

Samantha Whitehorne

Samantha Whitehorne is editorial director of Associations Now. More »

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