PR Pros Take On A President


Has public relations finally won the respect of journalists? Sure, PRs and media work together, and we need each other. But the relationship between “flacks and hacks” is an odd and uneasy symbiosis. That’s why a recent piece in the Columbia Journalism Review about PR professionals and the war between our 45th president and the press was so interesting. David Uberti’s “PR Flacks May Be the Media’s Secret Weapon” outlines the recent confrontations between Trump and two of his favorite targets, alleged “fake news” purveyor CNN and the newspaper he calls the “failing” New York Times.

Trump’s efforts to discredit the press, both individually and as an institution, have a train-wreck type of fascination, and they’re often entertaining. But they’re also dangerous, both for the White House’s own credibility, and for the public who depend on media for news. Uberti makes a subtle but important point about the challenges facing major media companies.

How should the press fight back against a media-savvy president? The fourth estate has the obvious advantages of airtime and ink, yet it has been weakened by the fragmentation of its audience, the changing advertising environment, and a general cynicism among the public. Trust in media institutions has never been lower.

Tensions have escalated since Sean Spicer’s initial press briefing where he attacked the media, and working journalists have responded individually. CNN’s Jake Tapper, for one, hasn’t shrunk from calling out the administration for its own brand of “alternative facts.” When reports hit that he was a GOP target after a tough interview with Kellyanne Conway, Tapper fired back by taking over the #TapperDirtFile hashtag with silly mock-revelations, and it quickly devolved into a gag trending topic.
But it’s tricky for a working journalist to be returning incoming fire.  When you throw mud – even in self-defense, even with 140-character wit – you invariably get dirty.

That’s where the media organizations and their teams come in. We in PR like to talk about how every brand is now a media company, but every major media company is also a brand. Like any other consumer products, they stand for something. It falls to the communications team to protect the integrity of those brands, and to reinforce other attributes that help them stand apart from direct competitors as well as frenemies like Facebook and Snap.

When Trump criticizes Boeing or Nordstrom, their corporate communications teams spring into action; in fact, in boardrooms all over the country, PR people are running through crisis management exercises to prepare for a presidential tweet or an off-the-cuff comment that can cost days of executive time and a few million in stock market value.

There are teams of specialists behind the big media brands, too, and advantages to using PR experts if you’re under attack. It keeps their journalists at arm’s length, so they can focus on reporting and don’t get caught in the crossfire more than necessary. Even more importantly, skilled PR pros are strategic thinkers, and their focus is purely on internal and external communications. They’re trained to issue thoughtful public responses under time pressure and withering scrutiny, and to think ahead to the next move from an often-hostile White House. Like those raised in a campaign war room, they’re accustomed to today’s hyper-accelerated news cycle and bring to the task a deep understanding of how media work. It’s no small irony that the elite-media-as-enemy strategy deployed so well by Trump’s team was born with right-wing radio and honed by Breitbart News Network, whose former executive chair Steve Bannon is the president’s right-hand man and chief advisor.

There are no clear winners or losers in the battle between the press and the president, at least not yet. But the stakes are higher than they’ve ever been, and it’s good to see PRs earning credit for a job that’s nearly always invisible and where the work never really ends. Apparently appreciation for PRs among media rises when we’re working on their behalf. The next thing you know, they might even stop calling us “flacks.”

What PR People Can Learn From Vladimir Putin

It raised eyebrows when Russia seemed to seize the communications initiative on Syria, picking up on a stray comment by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to call for a diplomatic solution to the mess. But it’s downright shocking that Russian president Vladimir Putin makes his case with a bylined editorial in The New York Times.

In calling for restraint in the use of military force in Syria, Putin suggests that the use of poison gas that killed thousands was actually perpetrated by Syrian rebels – an accusation that the White House immediately shot down. Yet Putin’s reasonable tone and elegant language makes such a “false flag” attack almost credible.

But it’s in his final paragraph that the former KGB strongman really lets loose and shows his communications chops. In a direct response to President Obama’s Tuesday address, he challenges the concept of American exceptionalism. Pushing back against Obama’s earlier reference to what makes our nation different, Putin warns that it is “extremely dangerous” to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional and reminds us that “we are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.”

Astonishing, considering the source. The U.S. response to the editorial has been cynical, to say the least, but from a communications perspective, the piece is instructive. Putin and his PR handlers have followed a formula that can be very effective when making a case in public.

Find common ground.  The Russian president opens by reminding us of historic bonds between our two nations and our many shared accomplishments. He even tries to soften us up by mentioning the Nazis.

Reframe the argument. Putin describes the Syrian conflict not as a struggle for democracy – that most precious of American ideals – but as an ethnic and religious war abetted by mercenaries.

Sow seeds of doubt and fear.  In a calm, reasoned tone, Putin suggests that the U.S. version of events does not correspond to reality. More skillfully, he expresses concern for the consequences of Syrian military action.

Exploit division. As if on behalf of the American people, Putin questions why we would want to “repeat the mistakes” of the past by becoming embroiled in the Syrian conflict. Of course, this echoes many domestic discussions, and he knows that very well.

Invoke core values.  He then cites the prized American ideal of equality for all people, our most cherished core value, and turns it upside down to make his case for non-intervention. Even bolder, he invokes America’s tradition of religious freedom and our Judeo-Christian faith tradition by mentioning God.

Bypass intermediaries. In his editorial, Putin mounts his appeal directly to the American people. That’s another reason why his closing paragraph, as disingenuous as it may be, is so resonant.

When Social Media Goes Too Far

The social web can be a wonderful thing. But what happens when social content goes too far as a substitute for actual journalism? In an age when “everyone is the media,” the credibility bar drops fairly low, revealing biases, errors, and rumors that pass as fact. I’m grateful for the traditional press, battered, but unbowed, when it comes to sorting out what’s really happening.

Except when it isn’t. Occasionally the mainstream media is suckered by what they read on blogs and social media platforms. David Carr’s New York Times story on the TSA furor has me thinking about how things go haywire when social and traditional media, rather than complementing one another, join to fan a brushfire. It’s the worst of both worlds.

Carr recaps how the reaction to new TSA security procedures, including high-tech scans and thorough body pat-downs, blew up on Twitter, then mushroomed into a traditional news story, and spawned an opt-out movement…all turning out to be much ado about very little. The TSA struggled to respond to the furor. But, when the mainstream outlets went out to report the story of the airport protests, apparently there wasn’t one.

It reminded me of a larger news story. Remember the Iranian Twitter revolution that never happened? And, at the other end of the spectrum, a favorite recent blog topic, about the outcry around Gap’s new logo? The social media revolt was such that newspapers and other jumped on the story, and Gap was forced to backpedal and return to its original iconic look. Yet, afterwards, a customer survey showed that only 17 percent of Gap customers were even aware of the initial logo change. It was branding and social media insiders, and PR people like me, whose comments multiplied exponentially on the social web.

These examples raise “echo chamber” accusations about the social web and its so-called influencers. Who’s really out there? Is it twelve people with mirrors? Is what seems like digital “grassroots” just a a few plants treated with media miracle-gro?

Maybe it’s no surprise that those who tweet the loudest are heard. After all, social content sharers are prey to all the pitfalls of traditional press – wanting to be first with interesting items, needing news during a slow time (like a holiday week), wanting to stoke reader interest, retweets, and discussion.

To be fair, many readers of Carr’s TSA story hotly dispute his premise – that, in fact, there were few protests and little of note at major airports over Thanksgiving week. That’s a good thing. When controversy rages online, it’s a reminder of the diversity of opinion on the web, and an antidote to groupthink.

When we bother to look for it, that is. Maybe it’s a reminder for us to break out of our digital cliques and to try harder to avoid falling into a social/digital news feed of recycled ideas and commentary about commentary. The next post will explore ways to do that. Until then, enjoy this video about “old” media’s newfound fascination with it.