Amanda Finney’s winding path to chief of staff to the White House Press Office and special assistant to Press Secretary Jen Psaki included Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and a stop at the Newhouse School, where she earned her master’s degree in television, radio and film.
“Newhouse allowed me to think even bigger than I was before, and get a tangible understanding of different roles and disciplines in communications to think about what was possible, and what I’d need to get there.”Amanda Finney, G’16
What is your current position title and employer?
Chief of staff to the White House Press Office and special assistant to Press Secretary Jen Psaki
How did you obtain your current position, and what positions did you hold before it?
I caught the political bug after working as a White House intern one summer in college. When Barack Obama announced his re-election campaign in 2012, I knew I had to be a part of it, and convinced my teachers and administrators at Wake Forest (and my mom!) to allow me to take a sabbatical for the first half of my senior year to work as a field organizer for the campaign in Virginia and, after a hard fought win, a fellow for the Presidential Inaugural Committee.
I followed a winding path from there to Teach for America to Syracuse to Hillary Clinton’s presidential run, Microsoft and all the way to Mike Bloomberg’s campaign. After President Biden and Vice President Harris’ historic win I—again—knew I needed to be a part of what they were building, and started making calls to old campaign and work friends to understand what opportunities were out there. After a few conversations with Jen and other members of the press and communications team, I accepted my current role, and the rest is history!
What’s an average day like for you on the job? Take us through it.
Anyone at the White House will tell you, there is no such thing as an “average day”—in fact, it’s always the ones you think will be “average” that we get the most surprises! What I can tell you is that every day starts early—we have a standing call for the press team at 7:30 a.m., then it’s all hands on deck to get Jen ready for her briefing, usually in the afternoon, prepping her on the news of the day and any questions media might ask when she’s at the podium.
After the briefing, we start all over again prepping for the next day and talking to reporters who are on deadlines for their stories, making sure they have the relevant information necessary to communicate the important work the White House is doing to the American people.
How do you feel Newhouse prepared you for your current position? What hard/soft skills did you learn at Newhouse?
Newhouse allowed me to think even bigger than I was before, and get a tangible understanding of different roles and disciplines in communications to think about what was possible, and what I’d need to get there. I remember taking Barbara Jones’ TV Business class where we got to meet TV executives firsthand, gaining an inside look at how they were thinking about the TV lineups on their networks and how ratings and trends translated to their decision-making process – Is it better to have the sitcom on before the drama or vice versa? What audiences will that bring in? What ads make sense to have on commercial breaks? Can we break the fourth wall with our ads?
Newhouse allowed me to see how the sausage gets made, from a lone starting script to set production all the way to a global premiere—and the many people who often don’t even get credit for their hard work bringing a story to life from start to finish. The lighting director is just as important as the lead anchor—and that’s a lesson I’ve taken with me to the White House twofold. I know to look out for the minor details that go into a TV or magazine spot for the press office, but I also know it’s important to treat every member of that team with respect and a smile, because it’s the result of everyone’s contribution that can make a story a true success.
Did Newhouse open your eyes to new professions or aspect of your field you may have not considered when applying?
Two words: Bob Thompson. He truly changed the way I thought about television and pop culture and how my love of each of these shape the world we live in today. Professor Thompson’s three courses, which explore each decade, opened my eyes to how much TV and film impacts society.
Oftentimes people write off television, tossing it aside as irrelevant or less than thought-provoking, but Thompson’s classes and viewing specials taught and proved it was very much the opposite. I distinctly remember him showing us a clip from the 1968 The Petula Clark Show in which she touched Harry Belafonte’s arm during a song—a moment that was not just TV history, that was American history—and is often cited as the first onscreen contact between a man and a woman of different races, exposing a huge audience to this interaction, who might otherwise not even have entertained the thought. Professor Thompson allowed me to think critically about the way TV, marketing, advertising, all visual media representations can directly shape the way we think, feel and speak as a society, and helped me understand the great role I could have as a storyteller, particularly breaking down stereotypes and paving the way towards equality for all.
What unique features of your graduate program drew you to it in the first place?
I went to a liberal arts college which I felt prepared me as a writer and as a thought leader on a range of subjects, but I felt the Newhouse Master’s program would be a great way to further immerse myself in the art and skills of communications.
Growing up in a rather culturally-aware, TV-friendly household, we would sit and watch every awards show every year, dissecting the winners based on our own favorites, and what we thought that meant about society at that moment. Considering the Syracuse program, with the opportunity to sit in classes and learn directly from executives behind major moments from the MTV VMAs awards to the Superbowl was a no-brainer. I knew I’d be able to learn from these experts, the people in the room making moments in cultural history, while putting my own creative juices to the test.
Did the Newhouse Career Development Center aid you? What internships or volunteer opportunities did you do while at Newhouse
If you’re in communications, you know Syracuse, and you know the name, “Newhouse.” I still subscribe to the alumni Job Ops newsletter and am always impressed by what alumni are doing, and the great network available to me. I’ve met alumni all over the country in roles from press to marketing and even at the White House, and when I have been pursuing new opportunities, I know a contact is likely only a quick call or LinkedIn message away.
What are some obstacles or misconceptions about your field that students ought to be aware of?
When you tell people you work at the White House, they immediately picture scenes from West Wing, and assume we’re all in the office 24/7. While the advent of cell phones and laptops have, luckily, allowed us to spend some time out of the office, there’s definitely a truth to the hours and dedication needed that you might have seen on TV. I’m always on, and have my cell phone at the ready on nights and weekends but with all the stress and hard work, come some pretty incredible moments too—I was able to be there when Judge Ketanji Brown-Jackson accepted her position on the Supreme Court—and those are the times you remember, that carry you through sleepless nights and less-than-leisurely weekends. I think this is something that binds all Newhouse graduates, pursuing your dreams, whether they be producing a feature film or chasing a huge news story, pays off but it won’t without hard work.
What moments in your career have been most exciting or defining thus far?
There is nothing quite like a political campaign: from the very first adrenaline rush of moving to a new city or state to support a candidate, to meeting other incredible people working towards the same goal, to meeting supporters, and being motivated to do everything you can to win. I’ve been fortunate to live through—and work for—quite a few history-defining campaigns, and be a part of moments that have shaped our generation: from Barack Obama in 2012 to Hillary Clinton in 2016 and now, working in the White House through pandemic. Each taught me, surprised me and inspired me in new ways, and I know will continue to shape my unique path forward.
What advice do you have for current or incoming students? Any classes or professors that you recommend?
My biggest advice to students or anyone starting out their career is to stay open. You may have an idea of what you want to do when you graduate—and that’s great!—but keep your eyes and ears open for possibilities, because what will shape your career might not even be invented yet. It used to be so clear cut – working your way up the ranks at a TV or newspaper, but so few have such linear career paths these days. It’s risky and scary, but there’s a great and exciting opportunity to create your own path, whether it be from TV to movies or even Instagram to the latest streaming platform. Enjoy the journey, make friends and contacts and learn from every opportunity, because you never know who or what will help you to your next big break.