Many years ago at my first PR agency, we represented a “dot-com” startup in the ticket resale business. When I was introduced at a board meeting, the founder casually mentioned that I’d be serving as a media spokesperson as the company navigated tricky messaging around gray areas of the industry. This came as a surprise to me, and later a lawyer on the board pulled me aside to talk about it. He warned against speaking on the record for the company, emphasizing that I could be liable for any false or misleading public statements put out. The implication was clear; he didn’t trust the founder to follow the rules or tell the truth.
Our work for the company was short-lived, and I never spoke on the record for it, but the experience came to mind when I read Mark Leibovich’s article about the highwire act walked by the president’s media spokespersons, “The Risky Business Of Speaking For President Trump.” It zeroes in nicely on the damned-if-you-do/damned-if-you-don’t dilemma of presidential surrogates, from the hapless Sean Spicer to the current White House lineup. Leibovich puts it this way, referring to Deputy Press Secretary Hogan Gidley.
“In Gidley’s case, it means saying things that Gidley might normally not be inclined to say, or defending things he might normally have a hard time defending, or offending people in ways that might defy his otherwise pleasing nature. But Gidley is willing to do it, and that, perhaps more than any of his other qualities, is why I had become fascinated with him.”
Despite Liebovich’s clever “Flack Ops” profile or what critics may think, PR people aren’t professional liars, and the industry vigorously promotes a code of ethics for the profession. PR agencies who belong to the PR Council must review and sign a pledge to maintain ethical conduct as a condition of membership. We train staff about lines that must never be crossed.
But what about our clients? While most PR people don’t face a press gaggle from a podium on a regular basis, there are plenty who serve as on-the-record surrogates for VIPs, celebrities, politicians, and CEOs. Like a White House press secretary, they may be asked to spin, deflect, or even stonewall when facing a tricky or damaging story. But most don’t worry about the basic credibility of their client or the damage they might be doing to their own reputation.
Can a professional communicator survive intact as a spokesperson for a controversial client? I’ve searched my own experience and spoken to two colleagues who represent mercurial, high-profile clients with a reputation for controversy, and here’s my take.
Clarify your goals
This isn’t always as obvious as it seems. If a PR professional takes a spokesperson role in order to advocate for a specific agenda or ideology, some compromises may be worth it. If it’s a quick payday, ditto. Those are personal decisions. But if the post is meant to be a stepping stone to bigger and better things, then a loss of credibility is career suicide.
Know your dealbreakers
It’s essential to decide in advance where to draw your line in the sand. For most of us, that line would be lying for a client, whether on or off the record. If a PR rep isn’t sure about the truth of a client’s claim but wants to continue to represent that client, they have two choices: insist on seeing evidence of accuracy, or stick to talking points that make it clear your source is the client and you are repeating his message in good faith.
Ask yourself: can you really influence the client?
Like top corporate communications officers, a good media spokesperson can function as a two-way channel, representing the client to press, but also channeling media or stakeholder views back to the client. Some enter the fray thinking they can exert a positive influence, improve the relationship all around, or even change the client’s views. My opinion is that most VIPs are not very receptive to alternative points of view when it comes to long-held opinions or attitudes about the press. Accepting a post while hoping to change the client’s view about transparency may be a bit like marrying someone in the hope of changing them. It’s a nice thought, but it rarely works.