Donald Trump gave his first press conference as President-Elect yesterday. Reactions to the presser may vary with the political views of the observer, but most professional PR people would probably say it did not go well.
Overall, the transition team seems to be stuck in campaign mode. The briefing was staged more like a mini-rally than a presidential press conference, complete with applauding Trump employees, odd visual props, and angry insults for some of the attending media. In his answers to press queries, Mr. Trump offered a jumble of rambling responses that wandered away from the question, off-the-cuff stories and comments, and even a little of his old reality-show shtick (referring to his sons running his business, he proclaimed, “If they screw this up, I’ll tell them, ‘you’re fired!'”)
The Trump presser was a highly unusual situation, even for a President-Elect. First, team Trump hadn’t given a press briefing since July 27, so media had plenty of pent-up frustration, and far too many questions for one session. To complicate things more, CNN broke into its regular programming the evening before with the story that U.S. intelligence leaders had included information in President Obama and Mr. Trump’s Friday briefing about claims that Russia has compromising information on Trump.
The report was followed by the publication of an “explosive” document by Buzzfeed that purports to be a foreign intelligence report on the information itself.
Managing a major press conference is challenging even if you’re not facing questions about being a Russian asset, and it’s not my place to weigh in on the hot mess that is Trump’s feud with the U.S. intelligence community. But there are some learnings from yesterday that can benefit organizations with more conventional needs and goals.
First, set and communicate ground rules
Even when you don’t face negative questions, it’s hard to manage a room of journalists, for the simple reason that there are more of them than there are of you, and each wants an individualized take on the news. (And if the media don’t outnumber your own representatives, then you probably shouldn’t be holding a press briefing.) To maximize control over the situation, decide how much time you will devote and/or how many questions you will take, and communicate that at the outset. We advise clients to allow a little more time than promised to convey an attitude of openness. It also helps to ask journalists to limit their queries to a single question at a time. The multiple questions lobbed at Trump from individual reporters contributed to the confusion on-site and Trump’s tendency to wander from the matter being put forward.
Stick to your objectives
Whether the briefing is intended to announce a new product or exert damage control, smart communicators set target outcomes as well as the key points they want to deliver in the session. They decide in advance which questions they will answer and which they need to deflect or decline to answer. Given the news that broke the night before its scheduled session, the Trump team might have done better to delay its briefing about his plan to avoid business conflicts, so that it could respond to the pressing intelligence report allegations and later focus more completely on the story it wanted to tell. As it happened, the presser resulted in a jumble of storylines and a somewhat diluted media take on the future of the Trump Organization business. For Trump, the chaos may have been intentional, but for most organizations, it would have been a disaster.
Designate a moderator
It helps to have a moderator who will control the flow of questions, gently cut off overly persistent reporters, and move things along if it becomes bogged down or threatens to be derailed. When the key executive has to be that person, it can hamper his focus and even undermine the credibility of his messages. Under normal circumstances that role would have gone to someone like future White House press secretary Sean Spicer, but on Wednesday his role was more like media attack dog, which was redundant with the role of Trump himself, and overly antagonistic.
Prepare your speaker(s)
For business pressers, it’s standard operating procedure to have more than one spokesperson for a complex or multilayered announcement, and to communicate specific expertise within the organization. Those spokespersons are rehearsed in intensive sessions where they practice responding with accurate, jargon-free points that conveys the major messages of the session. The key here is to use the spokesperson to deliver concise, top-level information, supplemented by more detailed material or data delivered either in written backgrounders or through follow-up interviews with secondary spokespersons. The Trump presser did this in part by introducing Mr. Trump’s legal representative to explain his plan to separate himself from his business. This was a good idea in theory, but it would have been stronger had the plan been more airtight and the lawyer allowed to take questions.
Know – and respect- your audience
The Trump presser was somewhat overshadowed by a shouting match between Donald Trump and CNN’s Jim Acosta, who was denied the chance to ask a question as Trump yelled that CNN is “fake news!” Of course, demonizing the news media worked for candidate Trump, and it may still be part of the transition’s team strategy to discredit press whom they don’t like, but it doesn’t bode well over the long term. Journalists tend to punish those who deny them access, and though they compete hotly for stories, there is a solidarity among media. Everyone who deals with the press runs into challenges, and we often play favorites even if we don’t admit it. But it’s far smarter to nurse grudges quietly by rewarding journalists who offer fair treatment with first-crack at plum stories rather than stoking a public war with the media.
Donald Trump is the rare public figure who breaks the rules and gets away with it, at least so far. And that’s precisely why most organizations are smart to consider our President-Elect a model for what not to do. There are surely lessons to come.