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Crafting the Message

From probably too-young an age, Liz Shepherd Bourgeois ’05 was a political news junkie, which partly explains why she spent so much of her time in college handing out lawn signs to lobstermen.

She drove around so much as an intern working for former Democratic Rep. Tom Allen in Maine that her Subaru Outback smelled like wooden stakes for years. Allen lost his Senate bid by 23 points, but the stink lingered. That’s politics.

Bourgeois was recalling the fumbles and fragrances of her earliest campaign memories this summer, roughly a year after she and her family packed up their home in San Francisco and returned to Washington to begin working for the Biden administration at one of the most crucial junctures in recent history.

Liz Shepherd Bourgeois ’05, senior spokesperson for the secretary of the Treasury, with her grandfather, Dave Fenton ’48, at the Treasury Department in June.

As a senior advisor in the Office of Public Affairs at the U.S. Treasury Department, Bourgeois was initially brought on to help explain the various recovery programs established under the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan passed in March 2021.

One year into the devastating COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. economy was still mending, unemployment was still high, and many schools and childcare facilities remained closed. The relief bill included stimulus checks for individuals, small-business grants, rental assistance, and an expanded child tax credit. The vast majority of it was to be handled and distributed via the Treasury Department.

It was a very un-Treasury-like task.

“Our relationship with taxpayers is usually through the IRS,” Bourgeois says. “Through the pandemic we’ve overseen housing relief, child tax credits, programs directly impacting the lives of millions of families. It just seemed like an interesting moment.”

It also required a crash course in advanced economics for Bourgeois, who had spent the previous eight years in Silicon Valley working in social media—first for Instagram starting in 2013 and then at its parent company, Facebook, where she handled communications for Sheryl Sandberg, the company’s former chief operating officer, and built the company’s crisis communications team.

When she arrived at Instagram, it had only a few dozen employees. Today, the picture-sharing app has roughly 1.4 billion active users; Facebook has 2.9 billion.

Bourgeois could draw parallels between her work in tech and communications for a government body—“no matter what’s going on in the world, it’s unfolding on social media,” she says—but she also grew to miss public service.

She began her career in Washington, working on Capitol Hill for her hometown representative, Nancy Pelosi, now the Speaker of the House. But she fell in love with communications after going to work for the Democratic National Committee.

“I was the traveling body person for the chairwoman, Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, and we went to 37 states” campaigning for the reelection of President Barack Obama, Bourgeois says. “She did tons of TV, and we were always reacting to some crazy thing that had happened in the news that day and you just had to come up with how to respond on the spot. It’s gut instinct, it’s not technical. It’s ‘what do you think people need to know or hear in this moment.’”

A year after joining Treasury, Bourgeois’ role has expanded to communicating about the state of the economy more broadly and the department’s work with other countries. “A lot of that is about the strength of the recovery we’ve seen, but also the steps we’re taking to get inflation under control and to keep up the pressure on Russia through our sanctions.” Early this summer she was preparing to travel with Secretary Janet Yellen to the G20 summit in Indonesia.

She notes that she has now worked almost exclusively for women leaders [Pelosi, Wasserman-Schultz, Sandberg, and Yellen], “which hasn’t always been on purpose but is something I’m proud of,” Bourgeois says. “I believe representation matters, and seeing more women in leadership roles whether in government or in business is crucial.”

Bourgeois always considered her obsession with politics to be a hobby until she took Rachael Ryan’s AP Government class at Taft.

“It was coming of age in a highly politicized moment of Bush versus Kerry and the war in Iraq,” she says. “Ms. Ryan helped me realize that my passion could be channeled into a career.”

Bourgeois with President Obama in 2013 and her husband, Michael, on Michael's last day of work at the White House, when she was then working for the Democratic National Committee chair. THE WHITE HOUSE

Bourgeois with President Obama in 2013 and her husband, Michael, on Michael's last day of work at the White House, when she was then working for the Democratic National Committee chair. The White House

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, with Bourgeois at right, during a visit to the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota in June.

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, with Bourgeois at right, during a visit to the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota in June.

She considered law school, a stepping-stone to drafting policy, but decided she much preferred writing the messaging side of politics.

“Comms is so much about synthesizing something complicated that doesn’t feel relevant to a regular person,” she says, “and trying to simplify it in a way that’s going to resonate with people. That appealed to me.”

In today’s polarized environment, crafting a message that doesn’t get lost in the partisan turbulence might seem like a Sisyphean task.

“It is tough, the division, but also the media environment,” Bourgeois says.
“The media cycles are short, people’s attention spans are short—it’s really hard to tell a nuanced story. Trying to get creative about how to get our message out and elevate voices of people who are being helped and seeing improvements in their lives so that doesn’t get lost, is something I think a lot about,” she says.

Fans of The West Wing television program might recognize some of Bourgeois’ traits in the character C.J. Craig, the quick-witted White House press secretary. But Bourgeois laughs off that comparison.

“I’d probably fit in a little better on Veep,” she says.

—Zach Schonbrun ’05