As journalists grapple with “alternative facts” and the Trump administration’s war on the media, some professional public relations people are putting ourselves in the shoes of those who act as spokespersons for the new president. Those shoes are pretty uncomfortable.
As the Trump and the media squared off, I was struck by a provocative post exploring the president’s PR skills. Bob Pickard, CEO of Signal Leadership Communication, makes the case very well. In “A Publicist President” Bob warns:
Trump shows us the fearsome power of PR methods for mass persuasion just as surely as Edward Bernays did with the ‘Torches of Freedom’ campaign in the 1920s which helped convince millions of women to take up cigarette smoking under the guise of empowerment. Some might argue that Trump has not been doing PR so much as engaging in something much more sinister; namely, ‘propaganda’ (also the title of Bernays’ seminal book of 1928).
I’ve blogged about Trump’s PR and media skills myself, but it’s increasingly hard to accept his example as a model of effective public relations. For one, few PRs want to be associated with someone as controversial, mercurial, and downright unpopular. But even if you approve of Trump, in my view, he’s too impulsive a communicator to earn that label.
Trump’s true PR strategy – and his stunning success in dominating news coverage – is perhaps best seen in those operatives and others who have set the course, shaped his image, and occasionally helped save him from himself. But the transition to governing has been rough, and lately the team finds itself playing defense. This may be normal for a new White House, but for professional PR people, it’s also a warning. That’s because lately some of Trump’s staff have clearly experienced a PR person’s worst nightmare – being asked to lie for the boss.
The most damning stereotype for a PR person is probably the trope that we are nothing but spinmeisters or, worse, “professional liars.” Now, any PR or press rep will tell you that the fastest way to lose credibility is to be dishonest to the press. It’s just not true that PR is professional lying. But that’s the box Sean Spicer and Kellyanne Conway found themselves in over the weekend. The situation was all the more untenable by its relative pettiness; they were made to defend the new president’s claims not about national security or a major policy decision, but the size of the inauguration crowds in Washington, D.C.
For anyone watching Spicer’s first statement as White House Press Secretary last Friday, it was painfully clear that he was speaking not for himself, but for the boss. Spicer gamely railed against the press, angrily criticizing them for presumed distortions. He even built a detailed case for why the side-by-side photos of the Trump inauguration and President Obama’s 2008 ceremony were somehow inaccurate. In subsequent TV interviews, Conway tried to deflect to larger themes, but when cornered by NBC’s Chuck Todd, she reinforced the crowd size falsehood, eventually saying that the administration was offering “alternative facts.” From a communications point of view, it was a bad start for the new White House, to say the least.
For the public as well as the PR industry, the Trump-media brouhaha is a mixed bag. On the one hand, it’s encouraging that #alternativefacts was trending on Twitter within hours of Conway’s appearance in recognition of its utter speciousness. The #seanspicersays and #spicerfacts memes were even bigger. Jokes about Spicer’s credibility dominated social platforms and even made their way into weekend sports events.
But the falsehoods also evoke old stereotypes in our business. They made me remember a small but damaging survey of corporate communicators in which the majority admitted that they had lied to the media as part of their job. Ugh – and those are the liars who’re telling the truth! A broader survey conducted by DS Simon reveals that 90% of media, bloggers, and web producers feel they have at some point been “misled” by PR people or their outreach.
So, how can we rise above the deception? It’s easy to say that Spicer should have quit rather than risk his reputation, particularly about something so petty. It’s also popular to criticize Conway for her numerous deflections on-air interviews. Fortunately, most of us never face a choice like theirs.
But here’s the reality. There are times when a corporate spokesperson has to hide behind a technicality, or stonewall to prevent premature disclosure of material news. Outright fabrications, on the other hand, are very rare. And when they do happen, it’s often a symptom of an equally troubling issue – that senior PR officers aren’t always in the loop when big changes are afoot. Or, worse, their view is discounted.
That’s symptomatic of the problem here also. Spicer undoubtedly knew that challenging the media over its reports of the inauguration crowd size was a bad move that would squander whatever honeymoon period Trump may have enjoyed with the White House press corps. But he wasn’t able to convince Trump of that. Conway, too, is famed as a Trump whisperer, but there she was, doubling down on TV and deepening the hole that the administration was digging.
Until the best in our profession are able to influence the powerful that lying is not only wrong, but counterproductive, we will be vulnerable to stereotypes of dishonesty and spin. That’s why every professional communicator of note has to refocus on the communication within our own organizations. We must recommit to transparency, to ethical relationships with media and partners, and to debunking the biggest lie of all — as when a high-profile example paints an entire administration – or profession – with one dishonest brush.