Don’t Send a “Mooch” to do a (PR) Man’s Job

The Mooch's short tenureWhen I learned President Donald Trump appointed a former Wall Street hedge fund manager as his new director of communications, I groaned.

I’m sure my fellow PR pros, and many others, have also watched the actions of the White House press office with a combination of bewilderment and “you’re kidding me, right?”  I wrote a few months ago that Trump was setting our profession back years, and what’s amazing is that it got worse last week.

I had figured this topic had run its course, but when Trump appointed Anthony Scaramucci as the new communications director, all my fears and concerns came flooding back.

If you don’t know the story, here’s the recap: The White House, in an effort to improve its overall messaging, brought in the brazen Scaramucci to shake things up.  Saturday Night Live punching bag Sean Spicer quickly resigned, and then the self-proclaimed “Mooch” almost immediately gave a profanity-laced interview to the New Yorker where he insulted practically everyone in the White House except the president.  (If you haven’t read the story and want to know what a political debate inside a fraternity house sounds like, I suggest you check it out.)  Within days (10 to be exact), Scaramucci was unceremoniously escorted from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

By most definitions, Scaramucci is a smart and successful guy, one who would probably be an asset to many organizations.  His stake in his recently sold hedge fund is said to be around $77 million.  So he is clearly a successful guy.  But just because you can run a hedge fund, doesn’t mean you can run the White House press office.

I can’t emphasize this enough, and it’s amazing to me that the president can’t figure this out: Communicating is a profession. It’s been studied. It’s taught at universities.  It’s practiced by many and perfected by few.  And while it is often learned outside of a journalism school incubator, it doesn’t mean that any Wall Street guy is qualified to do it.  Just as I’m not qualified to look at nearly all known spreadsheets, a person who gives good soundbite on Fox News isn’t necessarily a professional communicator.  And while the president may see the traditional PR approach as limiting, it doesn’t mean you can throw away all the tenets of the profession.  Sorry, often as president, you get negative coverage – and a professional PR person will tell you to deal with it and man up.

So back to my groaning moment.  I’m an optimist, and I thought perhaps some positive things could come out of Scaramucci’s appointment. But before I could even blink and far sooner than anyone could make a sound assessment of the guy, he goes out and makes one of the biggest rookie mistakes in the history of PR and/or politics.

Even if you can look past the content of what he said in the New Yorker, just the fact that he made the call shows how little respect he had for the process. Here’s why:

  • Reporters are not your friends, particularly at this level. Yes, I have friends who are reporters, and I’m friendly with dozens of them.  But they are not the pals of my clients.  It’s the media’s job to circle the White House and look for information. It’s who they are, and they are absolutely emboldened right now by the juiciness of what’s happening inside the West Wing. On many days, it feels like CNN is solely covering the White House. The New York Times and the Washington Post are duking it out and grabbing scoops at a rate not seen in decades.  Given all this, Scaramucci comes in and decides to call the New Yorker and start ripping on the staff.  Why would you even place the call? What was the purpose of the call? What was the strategy of the call?  The only answer is that he never asked himself the questions.  Hubris?  Who knows.  Members of the White House press corps are worthy adversaries.  You can be friendly with them, but they are not your friends.
  • The only guy who gets to talk like this particular president is this president – because he was elected. We cringe at Trump’s tweets and his over-the-top style, but he got the votes.  He won and chooses to be blustery – that’s his right.  His staff doesn’t get the same pass.  Again, not sure how they haven’t figured this out yet, but the folks working for the president don’t get his leeway.  Spicer learned it on inauguration day and Scaramucci figured it out far too late.  It seems like the president wants a spokesperson who will speak to the press the way he does.  Sorry, he or she can’t. The media will continue to chew up and spit out anyone who takes the overly aggressive, brash approach fomented by Trump.
  • Media relations has rules of engagement. I have written in the past about “on the record” vs. “off the record” vs. “background.”  I guess the Mooch doesn’t subscribe to my blog.  After the New Yorker interview was published, Scaramucci tweeted: “I made a mistake in trusting in a reporter. It won’t happen again.”  If he knew the rules of engagement, he would have never made the mistake.  Making matters worse, I wonder if he knew that a reporter sitting in the State of New York can record a conversation without his consent.  Did the Mooch think he was off the record?  The best assumption in media relations is that everything is on the record.  Going back and forth between “on” and “off” the record is like walking a tightrope.  Most people shouldn’t do it.

While Scaramucci’s tenure didn’t do much to advance the White House’s message, perhaps we can all learn from his meteoric fall.

–John

Comments

  1. One of the best blogs I’ve read about the role of a public relations professional and how anyone talking to the media should understand the media.

    A few particular comments:

    1) In wish more PR people would do this with their clients: “Sorry, often as president, you get negative coverage – and a professional PR person will tell you to deal with it and man up.”

    2) Remember this when talking with media: “The best assumption in media relations is that everything is on the record. Going back and forth between “on” and “off” the record is like walking a tightrope. Most people shouldn’t do it.” Good PR people tell this to their clients again and again. You can add a bit of information off the record, but make sure you and the reporter are entirely clear that it’s off-the-record (or on background). If you go back and forth too much, everyone can become confused.

    3) Although I try to be respectful of all sources, this is very much true: “Reporters are not your friends, particularly at this level. Yes, I have friends who are reporters, and I’m friendly with dozens of them. But they are not the pals of my clients. … Members of the White House press corps are worthy adversaries. You can be friendly with them, but they are not your friends.”

  2. Mikki Ball says:

    I too, was bewildered by Scaramucci’s brazenness. At first I thought, a joke, right? When the smoke cleared and the details appeared all too real I asked myself who could have written this as a T.V. sitcom? Thanks John, your opinion on another mistake by the West Wing is well taken.

  3. This is fantastic. And I agree totally with the notion that our work gets no respect. It seems like everyone thinks that professional writing and communication are simple now that everyone has access to the tools of communication and publishing online. Remember that old saw about “if you put 1000 monkeys in a room with 1000 typewriters, they’d eventually reproduce the works of William Shakespeare?” The internet has proven that to be, unequivocally, wrong.