For Zack Pohl, it was inevitable he would attend Michigan State University. What wasn’t inevitable was him overseeing communications at the highest level of state government during the worst public health crisis in 100 years.
A 2006 graduate of Michigan State University’s College of Arts & Letters, Pohl is the Communications Director for Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, a position he’s held since January 2019 after managing communications for Whitmer’s gubernatorial race.
Before the COVID-19 (novel coronavirus) outbreak, Pohl’s life was as typical as it could be directing communications for the state’s chief executive officer and commander-in-chief. Under normal circumstances, he manages a team of 10, including a speechwriter, a press team, a digital team, and two paid interns. Those “regular” days, he says, have a rhythm from 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m., with phone calls, emails, and other demands after hours.
Since the COVID-19 outbreak, it’s a stretch to call daily life the “new normal.” Pohl’s team has expanded with extra help brought in during the crisis. Instead of being in one place, members are scattered across the state and working from home to deliver the governor’s message through news coverage and digital media. Breaking and developing news shape the terrain, requiring the coordination of speeches, press conferences, and news interviews with little lead-time or preparation. Dealing with rumors and misinformation takes time too, as the team works around-the-clock to keep the public informed and safe.
“Without a doubt, this has been the most challenging period of my career, and we’ve still got a long way to go,” Pohl said. “The biggest challenge is not always having a clear sense of what tomorrow holds.”
Without a doubt, this has been the most challenging period of my career, and we’ve still got a long way to go.
Given health concerns and protocols, Pohl and his team have done what they can to make themselves and the governor accessible. Local radio and TV interviews take place daily, along with regular press conferences that rotate media access to ensure social distancing, and two televised town halls have been held, one in Grand Rapids and one in Detroit. Video, social media, and phone calls also are part of the mix to provide facts and deliver messages.
“We are using every tool in the communication toolbox to keep people informed,” he said. “I am so proud of the work the governor and our team are doing under tremendous pressure.”
A Lifelong Connection to MSU
Pohl always knew he would one day join the league of MSU Spartans driving change and coordinating impact for a better world.
“My dad started working at WKAR Radio in 1984, two weeks before I was born,” Pohl said of his dad, Scott Pohl, a general assignment reporter, producer, and local host for NPR’s Morning Edition. “I basically grew up on campus, learning to type at the ComArtSci building, sitting next to my dad when he was a PA announcer for women’s basketball, and attending band camp in high school.”
After Pohl graduated from Holt High School in 2002, he enrolled at MSU where he met his future wife Stefanie, also an English major who lived in the same residence hall.
“Stef and I both had Macs, and at that time, you could stream other people’s music through iTunes if you were on the same network,” he said. “She saw my library and liked my music and left a sticky note on my door. We chatted a few times on AOL Instant Messenger, and eventually met in person.”
Pohl graduated in 2006 from MSU with a Bachelor of Arts in English, a concentration in Film Studies, and cognates in Economics and Communication. His wife graduated a year later in 2007, also with a BA in English.
Pathway to Politics
Pohl’s interest in news and politics started early. He admits it was mostly because of his dad’s job, but his mom shaped his perspective, too, through her career in public service for the state’s Social Security Office. Growing up, he watched Meet the Press every Sunday. And when the film, The American President, came out, he was captivated by Michael J. Fox’s character, who was the president’s speech writer.
MSU and my Film Studies classes made me a stronger writer and taught me how to be a critical thinker. I knew that if I could write a 90-page screenplay over a semester, I could manage writing a press release.
“Of course, I had no clue what that job actually entailed when I was in middle school,” he said. “Now, I see it’s somewhat similar since I work closely with the governor and our team to help shape her message and communicate with the public about the work her administration is doing to help people.”
His first experience working in politics was when he volunteered for Gov. Jennifer Granholm’s re-election campaign his senior year at MSU. He made phone calls, stuffed envelopes, and fell in love with the idea of a career where he could combine politics and writing.
“MSU and my Film Studies classes made me a stronger writer and taught me how to be a critical thinker,” he said. “I knew that if I could write a 90-page screenplay over a semester, I could manage writing a press release.”
Within a year of receiving his bachelor’s degree, Pohl was referred for a job at the Michigan Senate. Since then, he has led the nonprofit organization Progress Michigan, directed communications for Mark Schauer’s race for governor, and oversaw communications for the Michigan AFL-CIO. When Whitmer threw her hat in the governor’s race, he came on board to direct communications for her campaign and transitioned into his state role when she was inaugurated.
I didn’t get into this line of work to get rich. I do it because I want to help make people’s lives better. Even on my hardest days, that’s what keeps me going.
“Working in politics has its ups and downs,” Pohl said. “Public service is in my blood. I didn’t get into this line of work to get rich. I do it because I want to help make people’s lives better. Even on my hardest days, that’s what keeps me going.”
In between the current challenges, Pohl finds an occasional moment to reflect and slow down. He feels grateful for his ability to serve the governor and the people of Michigan, and to do the best job he can to make the state a better place. He thinks, too, of his wife and daughters, and is thankful for their understanding during this unprecedented time.
“I’m just hoping my kids remember what daddy looks like when this crisis is over,” Pohl said. “I’m trying to make sure we have dinner as a family, and some time for a quick dance party before bedtime.”