As an industry, public relations has a PR problem. Stereotypes about the profession die hard; 14 years after “Sex and the City,” people still think Samantha Jones is a typical PR woman. Or maybe they liken PR to dirty tricks, like the antics of fictional Big Tobacco flack Nick Naylor in Christopher Buckley’s satire “Thank You For Smoking”. (P.S., it’s hilarious.)
But the election of Donald Trump has brought a whole new spin to the art and business of…well, spin. It has also concerned many PR professionals and industry-watchers. Lou Hoffman recently posed the question in his post, “Will The Communications Industry Change Because Of President Trump?” Trump, after all, is a master at generating what we call earned media coverage. His campaign was remarkable for how it dominated the news cycle — for better or worse. As Fraser Seitel notes, Trump showed a winning PR strategy from the start. It seemed to prove the adage “Any PR is good PR.”
If you work in PR and depend on a stream of fresh young talent entering the business, that’s worrisome. Yet I agree with Lou Hoffman that Trump is unique, and therefore not likely to spawn many imitators in our business, even if they tried.
But what about the president’s own communications and press staff? Departing White House communications director Hope Hicks recently made headlines when news leaked that she admitted telling “white lies” as part of her job.
Oops. The “white lies” report brought a sharp rebuke from PRSA head Anthony D’Angelo. D’Angelo had barely finished defending our profession from incoming fire after a blistering profile of Hicks by Virginia Heffernan. Heffernan describes the 29-year-old as a “third-generation in a family of special-forces flacks” and asserts, “PR at that level takes moral flexibility, callousness and charm.” She sums up Hicks’ fitness for her job with the parting shot that lying to the media “is traditionally called PR.”
For the rest of us working PR people, that burns.
And the Hicks imbroglio isn’t an isolated incident. To paraphrase the president, when it comes to those who stand behind the press podium or craft statements for public release, Trump may not be sending his best. The rotating cast of characters makes “Veep” look like a documentary.
First came the hapless Sean Spicer – not exactly a paragon of truthfulness. The same can be said about his successor, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, although she shows more staying power. In between the two was Anthony Scaramucci, the shortest-lived but most colorful PR guy to land in any White House. The fact that he was dropped into the job after a career in hedge funds is exactly the kind of move that makes professional communicators roll their eyes. It should take more than smooth talk and photogenic looks to perform in a top comms post. I’d sure hate for anyone planning to enter the PR profession to think of the Mooch as any kind of role model, but I give them more credit than that.
The most conventional – and effective – PR guy in the White house may be the least visible one. That’s Josh Raffel, who has served as exclusive rep and spokesperson for Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump. Considered by some White House press to be the most competent person in the West Wing, Raffel has a respectable PR agency background and a track record of honest wrangling with top press. Ironically, or maybe not so ironically, he’s another staffer who recently announced his departure.
There’s been so much upheaval, in fact, that this exercise makes me worry less about any future impact on the the PR profession, and more about the immediate effect on our government. As Lou Hoffman points out, Trump is a unique president, and his is an unusual White House. It is staffed with people who in many ways lack the typical background or experience for the job they hold.
When it comes to media relations and communication, the lessons of the Trump administration so far are clear. It’s mostly about what not to do. Don’t try this at work.