When Your PR Problem Isn’t About PR

For PR professionals, it’s interesting when a particular company or public figure is said to have a “PR problem.” Of course the term is used as shorthand, but it can signal that brand-watchers are misdiagnosing what’s wrong. “Bad PR” generally means negative media coverage, but the coverage is often a symptom rather than the problem. You can’t fix the situation until you understand what’s causing it.

Take the case of outgoing White House Communications Director Bill Shine. Shine announced his resignation last week, and though he will reportedly join the Trump 2020 campaign, the shift was seen as a soft landing for the former Fox executive. Shine was ousted because his boss, the president, isn’t happy about the bad press he’s received since Shine joined the White House operation eight months ago.

As one insider quipped to Jane Mayer in her deeply reported New Yorker article about Trump’s relationship with Fox News, “Trump thought he was getting Roger Ailes but instead he got Roger Ailes’s gofer.”

Ouch. That assessment may be harsh, but the evidence suggests the president’s biggest problem isn’t his press operation. The Trump White House has had five communications directors in only two years; it’s like a client that keeps churning through PR agencies in search of the perfect fit. You don’t have to be an expert to see that the perfect fit will never arrive.

When in doubt, blame the PR guy

The blame-the-PR-guy reflex isn’t limited to the White House. Facebook is a good example of a company beset with so-called PR problems that aren’t just about public perception, but some distinct realities, as well as a failure to respond appropriately by the company itself. At the recent Morgan Stanley conference COO Sheryl Sandberg seemed to frame its problems as a matter of public relations. “We need to tell our story better,” she’s quoted as saying. “And so we’re working hard to prevent the bad, but also to let the good stories be told.” Maybe Sandberg isn’t blaming her comms staff in particular, but she certainly isn’t acknowledging the reality. That’s the first and most important step in turning around public perception.

Most PR professionals have experienced the client who’s in denial about his problems, and it’s one of the most self-defeating situations we encounter. Not all are punitive, like the CEO who instantly axes the PR team over an unflattering interview. But those who hide the truth from their communications staff – and themselves — are the most insidious. PR pros aren’t magicians, and denial is a dangerous state for a chief executive or public personality.

Clients deserve the truth, even if they can’t handle it

My agency once won a digital reputation assignment from a client that suffered from terrible online reviews, among other challenges. It didn’t take much research to learn that its customers were right to be angry. Our PR proposal made it clear that if the company didn’t change its practices, our work would be in vain. I was surprised when the client we told us why we won the engagement against three larger digital marketing agencies who promised better results through SEO tricks. “You were the only one who told the truth,” he said — a pretty stunning comment, given the flagrancy of the problem. The relationship was successful because it was based on a realistic assessment of the situation, even if the client’s practices didn’t change as much as we hoped.

A company in denial of its unforced errors, on the other hand, is impossible to help. There are many situations that can be improved by a strategic PR and reputation campaign. Low visibility; an outdated perception; a competitive challenge; a public mistake that’s acknowledged and corrected — the list is very long. But the client who thinks the PR guy can fix anything he breaks, a la Olivia Pope, is like an alcoholic who says he’ll stop drinking tomorrow. Unless he really wants to change, it will never happen. “Good PR” isn’t just the result of a skilled communications officer’s work or a PR consultant’s media jujitsu. In part it grows out of behavior that’s fair and ethical, and until and unless that prevails, your “PR” probably won’t improve.

Hope, Lies, And Public Relations

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

As an industry, public relations has a PR problem. Stereotypes about the profession die hard; 14 years after “Sex and the City,” people still think Samantha Jones is a typical PR woman. Or maybe they liken PR to dirty tricks, like the antics of fictional Big Tobacco flack Nick Naylor in Christopher Buckley’s satire “Thank You For Smoking”. (P.S., it’s hilarious.)

PR Isn’t About “White Lies”

But the election of Donald Trump has brought a whole new spin to the art and business of…well, spin. It has also concerned many PR professionals and industry-watchers. Lou Hoffman recently posed the question in his post, “Will The Communications Industry Change Because Of President Trump?” Trump, after all, is a master at generating what we call earned media coverage. His campaign was remarkable for how it dominated the news cycle — for better or worse. As Fraser Seitel notes, Trump showed a winning PR strategy from the start. It seemed to prove the adage “Any PR is good PR.”

If you work in PR and depend on a stream of fresh young talent entering the business, that’s worrisome. Yet I agree with Lou Hoffman that Trump is unique, and therefore not likely to spawn many imitators in our business, even if they tried.

But what about the president’s own communications and press staff? Departing White House communications director Hope Hicks recently made headlines when news leaked that she admitted telling “white lies” as part of her job.

Oops. The “white lies” report brought a sharp rebuke from PRSA head Anthony D’Angelo. D’Angelo had barely finished defending our profession from incoming fire after a blistering profile of Hicks by Virginia Heffernan. Heffernan describes the 29-year-old as a “third-generation in a family of special-forces flacks” and asserts, “PR at that level takes moral flexibility, callousness and charm.” She sums up Hicks’ fitness for her job with the parting shot that lying to the media “is traditionally called PR.”

For the rest of us working PR people, that burns.

For PR, Trump’s Not Sending His Best

And the Hicks imbroglio isn’t an isolated incident. To paraphrase the president, when it comes to those who stand behind the press podium or craft statements for public release, Trump may not be sending his best. The rotating cast of characters makes “Veep” look like a documentary.

First came the hapless Sean Spicer – not exactly a paragon of truthfulness. The same can be said about his successor, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, although she shows more staying power. In between the two was Anthony Scaramucci, the shortest-lived but most colorful PR guy to land in any White House. The fact that he was dropped into the job after a career in hedge funds is exactly the kind of move that makes professional communicators roll their eyes. It should take more than smooth talk and photogenic looks to perform in a top comms post. I’d sure hate for anyone planning to enter the PR profession to think of the Mooch as any kind of role model, but I give them more credit than that.

The most conventional – and effective – PR guy in the White house may be the least visible one. That’s Josh Raffel, who has served as exclusive rep and spokesperson for Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump. Considered by some White House press to be the most competent person in the West Wing, Raffel has a respectable PR agency background and a track record of honest wrangling with top press. Ironically, or maybe not so ironically, he’s another staffer who recently announced his departure.

There’s been so much upheaval, in fact, that this exercise makes me worry less about any future impact on the the PR profession, and more about the immediate effect on our government. As Lou Hoffman points out, Trump is a unique president, and his is an unusual White House. It is staffed with people who in many ways lack the typical background or experience for the job they hold.

When it comes to media relations and communication, the lessons of the Trump administration so far are clear. It’s mostly about what not to do. Don’t try this at work.