Trump Administration Sets PR Back Years

Melissa McCarthy is Sean SpicerSince the election, I have discussed President Donald Trump’s communications style and practices with dozens of people, from fellow public relations and communications pros to friends and family members.  While I don’t want to get into specifics about his foreign and domestic policies, I am comfortable discussing how Trump’s communications practices have the potential to set back the PR profession years.

Sure, my profession doesn’t itself have the greatest reputation.  I have been called a flack, a spin doctor and probably worse (actually, I know there’s worse), but I believe the example being set in Washington for the future of public relations is more damaging than mere name calling.

Combativeness of Sean Spicer
Can you remember the previous White House press secretary?  Most of us couldn’t pick President Obama’s last spokesperson Josh Earnest out of a lineup, but everyone in the world seems to know Sean Spicer.  Typically, the spokesperson isn’t the story, but Spicer has quickly become a household name, and not because everyone loves him.  His combativeness and bluster – which started on his first day on the job – have become a hallmark of the Trump Administration.  The White House press office has a duty to distribute information for consumption by the American people.  Spicer has made it a daily battleground and his legacy will likely have as much to do with Melissa McCarthy’s SNL caricature as anything he does professionally.  Spicer is the highest profile PR person in the world, and he’s not representing our profession well.

140-Character Blindside
I’m a big fan of social media, and I understand that Twitter enables Trump to effectively reach his nearly 30 million Twitter followers in an unfettered manner.  But can you imagine what it must be like to work in the White House press office knowing that the president might drop a communications bomb at any time — and you are the person who must explain and defend it?  Trump has put his staff in a completely untenable position because he independently posts his opinions, and his staff learns about them at the exact same time as CNN, the local newspaper, your grandmother and the Russian ambassador.  Working in the White House press office is tough enough.  Hundreds of talented reporters are constantly plying their sources outside and within the White House walls.  Blindsides are common but now the communications team has to contend with crazy stories coming from within the Oval Office and typically in the middle of the night.  It’s like a PR slasher movie: “The tweets are coming from inside the house.  Get the hell out of there!”

I Don’t Like It Therefore It Must Be Fake
I’m actually not hung up on Trump’s fake news diatribes anymore.  When he first suggested that mainstream, national outlets like CNN and the New York Times were purposely creating and distributing false information, it made me cringe.  However, he has since taken to calling stories that he doesn’t like “fake news.”  This is actually less worrisome because whether by accident or on purpose, Trump has fallen back to very traditional battle lines.  He is using the term “fake news” like an insult, rather than suggesting that stories are untrue or faked.  He’s taking an adversarial and bullying position with the mainstream media, and there’s nothing new (or fake) about that.  The president vs. the media storyline is as old as the hills.  The attempted bullying, however, impedes his team’s ability to advance his agenda. 

Study in Contradictions
I have been in public relations for more than 25 years and from the simplest announcement to the most complex crisis, we always focus on consistency of messaging.  When any organization publishes mixed or contradictory messages, it looks disorganized and unprofessional.  This also undermines the communications team’s relationship with the media.  When Trump fired FBI Directory James Comey, he sent his staff out to explain the reasoning and then completely contradicted them days later.  And this behavior continues in example after example.  Trump has his staff say one thing in damage control mode, and then he contradicts them shortly thereafter.  Consistency of message is out the window.

No Seat at the Table
Since my earliest days in PR, we have talked about how important it is for the communications team to not only deliver an organization’s message but also have some say in what is said and how, why and when it is communicated.  We believe that communications should not be an afterthought or a mere tactic.  It’s a component of the overall strategy, and therefore, we believe that public relations and communications should have a “seat at the table” — like the boardroom table or within the C-Suite.  It’s been widely publicized that Trump keeps many of his communications decisions close to the vest, and it appears as though his press people are brought in only to serve as mouthpieces.  Most businesses have figured out that this doesn’t work in the long term.  Sadly, the White House hasn’t followed suit – to the further detriment of the PR profession.

Since I first began drafting this piece, Trump has also suggested that the White House eliminate press briefings entirely (Hurray for the First Amendment) and continues to blame the media for his communications shortfalls.  His political legacy has yet to be completed, but I believe his actions as a communicator harm my profession while leaving the reputation of his staff in tatters.  What do you think?

–John

Comments

  1. Jo Baxter says:

    What an excellent analysis of Trump’s failings as a leader and communicator. It won’t change the minds of his rabid followers, but your article is certainly timely and true.

  2. Well said, John. It is upsetting to be exposed to so many contradictory actions and statements coming from the White House at one time, especially when they impact international relationships. I would not want to be either the President or on his communication staff now and am grateful for whomever remains in government service and is trying to keep America’s ship sailing in a positive direction. Thanks for your thoughtful analysis, John..

  3. And that one time somebody called you a sock puppet …

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