Meet Ben Chang: diplomat, DJ, deputy vice president of communications| January 13, 2020
Ben Chang, the University’s Deputy Vice President of Communications, carries two phones — one for work, one for personal use. One’s case is black and sleek. Emblazoned on the other one is a vibrant Piet Mondrian motif.
Chang is a strait-laced statesman. He’s also a DJ and a photographer. He’s a spokesperson for one of the nation’s oldest, most elite institutions. He’s also a first-generation American who sees himself as aiding and representing those whom the establishment leaves behind. His professional and personal phones might be easy to separate. His professional and personal lives? Not so much.
Chang grew up in Washington, D.C. in a single-parent household. As a child, his mother had fled pre-Communist China; she wound her way to D.C. through San Francisco, Chicago, and Clarksburg, W.Va.
A scholarship to St. Stephens, an all-boys prep school, opened the door for him to prestigious universities. At first, Chang shied away from his college counselor’s suggestion of Georgetown — he thought it a basketball school. But his interest in foreign policy and some steady pressure from the counselor ultimately led him to apply and attend.
He graduated from Georgetown’s Walsh School of Foreign Service in 1994, and then spent 18 years with the Foreign Service Office’s State Department. He traveled around the globe — for example, on a trip to El Salvador to meet with American visa applicants — then served as an assistant to both Secretary of State Madeleine Albright during the Clinton administration and Secretary of State Colin Powell during the Bush administration.
“There’s a core of public servants in government whose responsibility is to be non-partisan and to help drive the institutional ambitions of these bodies,” said Chang. “And seeing it up front and personal at the White House was an important process for me to be a part of.”
In 2001, Chang started a new assignment as a public affairs officer at the U.S. Mission in Paris. Up to that point, he’d kept his governmental and artistic ambitions as separate as his phones. He’d never disclosed to his colleagues that when he wasn’t serving the United States, he was rocking out as an amateur DJ.
But after some time in Paris, he didn’t just start to share that information; he invited colleagues to his shows. He also dropped ‘amateur’ from his title, turning DJ-ing — under names like DJ MSG and DJ Hong Kong Hefner — into a serious pursuit.
By 2004, when he left Paris to serve as deputy spokesperson for the U.S. Mission to the United Nations under Ambassadors John Danforth and John Bolton, his side hustle was out in the open.
“After two years or so, I was comfortable enough that I had established myself,” Chang said in a 2013 interview with Politico. “If someone was like ‘Ambassador, did you know that your assistant’s a DJ?’ … It’s OK at that point.”
And then, his two lives started to collide. He DJ-ed Secretary Albright’s farewell event as Secretary of State, and, in 2015, he DJ-ed a summer party on the White House lawn.
“[Chang] and I had talked earlier, a while back,” said President Obama in a video of the event. “We were talking about our mutual admiration for Jay-Z’s music, and he said he wanted music played from ‘The Black Album.’ I said, ‘As long as it’s the clean version. We’ve got children here.’”
The crowd laughed. Chang stood to the side, a sheepish grin on his face. That was, says Chang, his “favorite White House moment.” It also wasn’t the only time that his work as an artist and a government official went hand in hand.
Chang had been interested in photography since high school, when he spent hours in the darkroom developing pictures and listening to R.E.M.’s music cassettes as the newspaper and yearbook photographer. He never studied photography or sought it out as a career option. But a chance encounter backstage at a D.C. concert with a producer for New York Fashion Week opened the door for him not only to bring his camera backstage at Fashion Week, but also to shoot for the producer’s production company for eight years.
As well as his stint as Deputy Spokesman and Director of Press and Communications for the National Security Council, Chang served as press officer for former National Security Adviser Susan Rice and Powell. In 2011, after Gaddafi’s fall, he traveled to Benghazi with American diplomats.
There, surrounded by crowds of cheering Libyans waving American flags and holding handwritten signs, Chang’s personal and professional worlds collided once again.
“I turned towards the street and I saw an image that to me captured the energy and exuberance, the atmosphere of that time,” Chang said in a 2014 TEDxAix talk.
He picked up his camera and shot a photo of the people around him; one held a sign that read, “Thank you Susan Rice.” The way Chang tells it, the image — absent from any corner of the internet save his own TedxAix talk — went viral, and became one of the defining images of the delegation’s visit.
In 2012, Chang left government to work in the private sector. In 2018, he became the University spokesperson and director of media relations, responsible for coordinating outreach to news media for coverage of the University and counseling University officials in shaping and executing media and messaging strategy.
“I wanted somebody in that role who could be and was a top-tier spokesperson in the government, someone who could have worked for a Fortune 500 company, someone who could have worked for a large not-for-profit,” said Brent Colburn, the Vice President for Communications and Public Affairs. “He, clearly, from his professional background, has those abilities.”
Chang has now spent two years as spokesperson. In that time, he’s watched his perception of the University and its societal role shift dramatically.
“For years and years, I thought of Princeton and other schools in a sort of word-cloud,” he said. “You wouldn’t think ‘first-generation.’ You wouldn’t think ‘a leader in financial aid and opportunity.’ You wouldn’t think ‘trying to drive a conversation nationwide about access and opportunity.’ What I realized coming into Princeton was that there was this great sense of opportunity and innovation — things unexpected to talk about at Princeton — but also, a challenge. There’s a perception gap to close. As a communicator, that’s exciting.”
Chang has worked to promote a vision of the University as a space for innovation in climate science, computer science, and immigration. President Christopher Eisgruber ’83’s co-written opinion piece in Time Magazine about DACA last November appeared largely thanks to Chang’s efforts.
But the past two years have brought with them challenges for Chang, as well — among them the misperception that the statements he issues reflect his personal beliefs.
“It’s my name and my words, but it’s not just me writing on the back of an envelope. Those are well-considered and agreed-upon positions,” said Chang.
With Chang’s promotion to Deputy Vice President for Communications come a host of new responsibilities. As per the University’s statement, Chang will continue in his role as spokesperson, while overseeing the University’s media relations team, particularly its day-to-day presence on social media. He will work in tandem with David Burden, the University’s new Deputy Vice President for Content Strategy, to manage and direct the Communications Department.
In short: in Chang’s new position, he will need to be as much a leader as a spokesperson. It might seem an unlikely pairing. But to those close to DJ MSG, there’s little doubt that the role plays to his strengths.
“I have seen some of the best spokespeople in my years consist of individuals who are great leaders,” said Anthony Clark Arend, a former professor of Chang’s at Georgetown. “Ben is one.”