What Sean Spicer Can Teach Us About PR

Sean Spicer just might be the most famous public relations person in the country, but it’s not from leading by example – unless walking away from the world’s worst communications job counts. In a clever but dubious bit of newsjacking, the owner of the Bunny Ranch brothel offered Spicer a PR job at his company. I’m sure Spicer will have better career options (though CNN commentator is out for now), but the Bunny Ranch stunt seems to put a final flourish on the running joke that had defined him as @PressSec. (It also reminded me of the most ignominious image of Spicer before his press secretary stint, which now seems pretty benign.)

White House Press Secretary isn’t an ordinary job, and as time goes on, Spicer’s reputation will probably rebound. But a look at his missteps offers some insights to even more “traditional” PRs.

Know your audience

A good PR person is focused on building relationships with influential media, who in turn reach actual consumers, or in this case, voters. Sometimes we even develop “personas” for key audiences, which in the case of the White House, should be key members of Congress and specific voter demographic segments. But Spicer’s press briefings had an audience of one in mind – the President himself – and he never really succeeded in pleasing Trump, despite repeated attempts. He would have done better – and retained his reputation – by focusing on the media audience in front of him, though it’s possible his tenure would have been even shorter. It was likely a no-win situation.

Keep your credibility

It’s impossible to do the job if you can’t balance the needs of the client with those of the media and publics being served.  The White House press corps is a tough and unruly bunch under the best of circumstances, so it’s unlikely any PressSec is beloved by them. But Spicer lost his credibility at his very first briefing – by pinning his performance on the lie that the 2017 inauguration audience was the biggest ever. Of course, he was doing it to please his boss, but a better strategy might have been to challenge media skepticism – and their underlying attitudes – rather than argue facts. If the facts aren’t on your side, you need to change the conversation instead of doubling down.

Don’t demonize opponents

This advice comes from former Clinton press secretary Mike McCurry, and it’s wise, though clearly difficult for an administration that feels besieged. But a consistently antagonistic posture distracts from the actual issues at hand. When it comes to major legislation, for example, the role of the White House should be to help persuade the electorate as well as our representatives. A polarized session may make for good entertainment, but ratings don’t necessarily equal votes for the next piece of lawmaking.

Use humor

Spicer tried a few times, but the press corps was rarely receptive, and his utter self-consciousness overwhelmed him to the point where was was stiff and unnatural when he tried to crack a joke.  We found out only last week that the real reason televised briefings were suspended for a time was that Spicer was desperately trying to shield himself from Trump’s scrutiny, which extended to his physical appearance. It’s tough to be relaxed or funny when you’re under constant pressure. Incoming Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci is likely to do much better on that score, although it’s unclear if he’ll be presiding over briefings.

Give the news, don’t be the news

Spicer couldn’t prevent Melissa McCarthy and SNL from creating a hilarious impersonation of him at the podium that arguably made more headlines than the president. But his angry and bombastic demeanor (Vanity Fair called it, “Part Trump, Part Sam Kinison”) enabled it. Spicer was a comedy sketch waiting to happen. He was often tongue-tied, which is a real handicap for anyone whose job is on live TV. But his tendency to dig himself in deeper when he made a mistake was truly unnecessary, and on a couple of occasions it dominated several news cycles.

Admit mistakes

This one was my biggest concern about Spicer as a PR professional, because it was so avoidable. The most memorable gaffe was when, in referring to Syria president Bashar al-Assad, he confidently asserted that even Adolf Hitler “didn’t sink to of using chemical weapons.” When reminded that Hitler sent millions to their deaths in gas chambers, he doubled down, clinging to technicalities and calling concentration camps “holocaust centers.” Spicer didn’t apologize until the following day, after apparently speaking with megadonor Sheldon Adelson. How much easier would it have been so have simply said, on the spot, “I’m sorry, that was a terrible  analogy. Next question?”


Public Relations And The Big Lie


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.

The comms guy as liar-in-chief

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.