The Cost Of Losing Credibility

A former PR agency boss once told me, “You don’t win by being right. You win by being credible.”

That’s been ringing in my ears since the White House COVID-19 credibility crisis shifted into high gear. Credibility is among the most valuable currencies of any leader. It’s tough to watch it squandered even on an ordinary day. But in the midst of a global pandemic that has triggered a host of additional worries, it’s downright scary. And while it makes us feel clever to parse the press secretary’s statements and tweet snark about the handling of the president’s illness, it clearly goes beyond a PR problem.

White House fails transparency test

The lack of transparency around the spread of the coronavirus at the top levels of our government has further tarnished the Trump White House, our CDC, and even the Walter Reed Medical Center, among others. A September poll by ABC-Ipsos showed that 68% of Americans don’t trust the president when it comes to updates about the pandemic. Some even doubt the diagnosis itself, suspicious that it could be a stunt. Videos of the president posted from Walter Reed were parsed for edits and timestamps with a zeal that would make QAnon followers blush. No one seems to believe anything anymore.

The news that the president and several members of his inner circle have contracted the virus resulted in “worst-practices” communications by the White House. The government clearly had no plan to deal with a COVID infection in their midst. It started with a leaked story about Hope Hicks’s positive test results, followed by several hours of suspense about the president’s health status. Then, like dominos falling, the bad news just kept coming.

Yet four days later, we still don’t have answers to crucial questions about how the president contracted COVID-19 and who else was exposed. The initial briefing about the president’s health was dodgy; Dr. Sean Conley, the president’s physician, seemed to cast doubt on the timeline of events released by the White House. He was notably evasive when asked about the president’s oxygen levels. To compound the problems, after Conley’s upbeat report, White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows released a statement “on background” that indicated the president’s condition was far more serious than reported.

Contradictions undermine credibility

Granted, there’s a long history of obfuscation when it comes to the health of a U.S. president. But in this case, the clumsy handling of the situation reflects the flawed management of the broader COVID-19 national health crisis. The administration and members of Trump’s family and inner circle have openly flouted the guidance from his own CDC. They have politicized the simple safety measure of wearing a face covering while denying ambivalence about masks. The key message point adopted by the administration over the weekend – that we should “live our lives” and not fear the virus – comes in direct and stunning contradiction to national guidelines. It will do nothing to protect public health.

Could an administration known for a lack of credibility have done anything differently or better? Yes. A straightforward report on the president’s health status would have been a first step, followed by disclosure of others affected and news of real actions taken to manage the outbreak – remote work, masks, contract-tracing, and the rest. But that hasn’t happened.

COVID is reality, not a reality show

The crisis has done more than finish off the administration’s credibility. It could cost well-meaning behind-the-scenes staff and members of the press their health, or worse. It has done lasting damage to our institutions. And the worst of it is that the lies, half-truths and distortions will probably continue once the president is released from the hospital.

We’ll most likely start a new chapter of the COVID reality show with only our common sense and the free press to interpret what we see and hear. It’s not the way it should be, but it’s the price of an administration that has sacrificed all credibility in pursuit of political gain.

Has Reality TV Gone Too Far?

The furor over the Virginia couple who evaded security and gained entry into the recent White House state dinner has many calling for a review of Secret Service procedures. When photos showed that the couple actually got close enough to the president to shake his hand, the concern, and the coverage, of “gatecrasher-gate” naturally escalated.

But, there’s a twist, of course. It turns out that the couple, Tareq and Michaele Salahi, are being considered by Bravo for a new edition of its successful “Real Housewives” franchise, this one to be set in Washington, D.C. A camera crew was actually videotaping them as they drove to the White House. (Sounds like more than an audition to me.)

The sturm and drang over their gate-crashing plays out a little like Balloon Boy redux, and it raises similar questions. To what lengths will people go for a chance at fame, however dubious? Is reality-TV “stardom” the new American dream? Shouldn’t we stop rewarding people for bad, outrageous, or even illegal behavior?

Most galling is the response from the couple – or, rather, their publicist. Her email to CNN sounds as if she’s repping Angelina Jolie. It reads, “We will begin doing press and media next week providing exclusive interviews and press junkets. If you would like to be considered in our media circuit we request that you hold your proposed published profile until then.”

Holy media tour. Mrs. Salahi is already booked on Larry King next week. I realize that reality TV attracts the publicity-hungry and the narcissistic, and the Salahis are clearly fame-seekers of a high order. In fact, there’s probably more than just a shot at a “Housewives” gig to the story, as some bloggers have suggested. But, from Omarosa to Octomom, it seems like the only thing that matters is to stand out. As reality producer Michael Hirschorn said, aspirants have become much more clever at “self-producing.”

So, where do you draw the line? And, at what point do the production company, the network, and even the viewers, share responsbility for these kinds of antics?

I’m a fan of many reality TV shows, and the “Housewives” are kind of a guilty pleasure. But, unless there’s another side to the story, I hope these guys are dealt with harshly by the law, if only to set an example. They’ve already enjoyed far more than their 15 minutes… and, honestly, if there’s a book contract in their future, I’ll organize a boycott or something. As James Poniewozik wrote his excellent piece on the Heene family, “Only in the reality TV era is unstable behavior a valid career choice.”
I think it’s time for all of us to get a life.

White House vs. Fox News: Who’s Winning The PR War?

As the adage goes, you should never pick a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel. So, what’s behind the White House’s PR offensive against Fox News?

When Obama communications director Anita Dunn first referred to Fox as not a news organization, but, rather as an arm of the Republican party, I was surprised. It seemed to run counter to conventional communications strategy, if not good sense. First, it provided several days’ worth of distraction from actual policy discussion. It also served to put a spotlight on Fox, which wasted no time in casting itself as a victim of Nixonian partisan politics. And, the administration’s interview boycott – in theory – deprives it of access to an audience that is surely broader than the most hardcore conservatives.

The PR war would also seem to go against the president’s own “brand” persona. Though the Obama campaign took plenty of shots at Fox before the election, he was supposed to be the guy who would heal our wounds, bridge the political and cultural divide, and bring us together as a nation. The White House has been careful to use surrogates in its criticism, leaving the president somewhat above the fray. But, he still risks looking partisan, or even petty. What happened?

My take is that the White House isn’t really going after Fox. At least, not solely. Sure, it probably wants to show more spine after the beating it’s taken over healthcare. But its true goal is to delegitimize the Republican party. The prize? Independent voters. A classic strategy to woo the middle ground, after all, is to marginalize the other guy.

The initial White House statement didn’t call Fox a mouthpiece for “conservatives” or “right-wingers.” Nope, it equated it with the GOP. If the administration can identify the entire Republican party with its most extreme advocates – the ranting, fist-shaking, conspiracy-spotting “mad men” like Glenn Beck – it can perhaps capture the independent-minded middle. Meanwhile, Fox also continues to position itself as serving the ordinary American. What it really comes down to is a contest to see who can be perceived as more mainstream.

Is it working? Both sides, of course, are claiming advantage. Fox says its ratings are up. The White House points to a new Washington Post/ABC news poll in which only 20 percent of Americans identify as Republicans – a  26-year low for the party.

But, it’s far too early to tell who’s going to come out on top in the PR war. Network ratings are up and down all the time with the news cycle. (Last week, “balloon boy” actually drove everyone up.) And, Republican poll numbers took a dive long before the election. As usual, the real winners are the pundits. But, the show sure is fun to watch.

Was The Beer Summit A Teachable Moment?

What is it about beer? Former President George Bush was elected partly because he was a guy most Americans could imagine sitting down and having a beer with…ironic, given the fact that he doesn’t touch the stuff.

This week, knocking back a cold one became the symbol for a “cooling off” event involving President Obama, Harvard’s Professor Henry Gates, and Sgt. James Crowley, the Cambridge police officer who arrested Gates at his home recently. I think the beer detente (or beerastroika) was a decent move to effect damage control by the White House.  It’s clear from their efforts to lower expectations that they didn’t welcome the outpouring of media attention, however.  But, once opened,  you can’t put the cap back on the bottle. The photo op that summarized what one blogger called “Cold Beer Diplomacy” is now international news.

The roughly 30 seconds of video has been scrutinized by scores of reporters, bloggers, and even body-language experts.  Most entertaining was the on-air pun-ditry.  ABC served up a segment headlined “The Audacity of Hops,” while MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow went with the more classic “From Beer to Eternity.” Of course, I was interested in the branding sidebar, so I tapped into the coverage of each participant’s choice of drink.  There was a potential brou-haha at first.  Some Summit-watchers were in a lather because three of the beers originally mentioned -Bud Lite, Blue Moon, and Red Stripe – are not American brands.

Craft brewers protested, and, as recounted in a front-page story in The Wall Street Journal, Massachussetts congressman Richard Neal lobbied for a more patriotic choice.  In the end, Professor Gates traded his Red Stripe for a Sam Adams, a great beer and a hometown favorite.  (And what could be more fitting than a beer named for a Founding Father?)  Blue Moon, which is brewed in Canada, is a product of Molson Coors, so I give it half-credit.  And, though the President’s choice of Bud Lite is an Anheuser Busch beer now owned by Belgian conglomerate InBev, it’s still an iconic American brand.  (Later, Vice President Joe Biden crashed the party with the choice of a “near beer,” the low-alcohol Buckler brand, owned by Heineken.  Meh.)

My first thought was that the White House planner should have had the guys in shirtsleeves, sharing a pitcher of the same beer; after all, it’s better symbolism.  But, perhaps in a celebration of their diversity, each ordered his own favorite.  And, they did it, we hope, while sharing views and building bridges, which would be the best and most ideally “American” outcome of all.
I’ll drink to that.