PR Lessons from 2017

The past 12 months have been fascinating in the world of public relations. We have a president who communicates off-the-cuff each morning to his more than 45 million Twitter followers, and for the first time in at least eight years, most of us can name the White House Press Secretary. Communications from the White House has never been more high profile. We also learned this year that no amount of PR wizardry or spin control can save executives, even at the highest levels, who are guilty of sexual misconduct. Here are a few main PR lessons from 2017, when perception and reputation ruled the day.

Words Matter

Each day, major news networks focus part of their daily coverage on what President Trump tweeted that morning. Whether you agree or disagree with him, he is showing that he can control part of the news cycle and that words still matter. Trump’s tweets have a huge impact on how he is perceived. His word choices and tone are interpreted by both his supporters and detractors, and he often makes mistakes that cost him on the perception front. He recently “called-back” a tweet, claiming it was instead written by his lawyer. Again, it doesn’t matter what side you are on, but even in this age where visuals and short videos dominate, words still matter.

Actions Matter More

In recent months, we have seen an avalanche of sexual harassment cases where many powerful celebrities and business executives have lost their standing and their livelihoods due to their harassment of female colleagues. I always analyze the public responses in these situations with great interest. While not getting into the specifics, we know that no words were able to “save” Harvey Weinstein, Bill O’Reilly, Matt Lauer and many others. When the Kevin Spacey story broke, one of my friends asked me how I would counsel him, and I truly drew a blank. In my head, I ran through many of the typical “PR guy” responses and machinations but quickly realized that no words could help Spacey. Actions matter far more than words when it comes to your reputation.

Power Still Corrupts

Across the country, we are coming to a national realization that our standing within our company or organization often gives us power over our colleagues, and we have to refrain from exploiting this power. The huge wave of sexual harassment cases is the result of behavior which has been going on for many years. And it must stop. If you have an impact on another person’s salary, chance at promotion, when or how they get paid, etc., then you have to be sensitive to the relationship as it can impact that person’s livelihood, future career and more. Your actions have incredible implications for you and others.

Value of Reputation Grows

The women who made their voices heard in the many sexual harassment cases have proven that reputations matter. Even though we saw many attempts to cover-up past indiscretions, in the long run justice and reputation superseded the almighty dollar. Fox is bigger than Roger Ailes. CBS is more than Charlie Rose. The U.S. Senate is not defined by Al Franken. The list goes on. It doesn’t pay to put profit above reputation.

As we close out 2017, we wish you a joyous holiday season and a prosperous new year.



  1. Oren Wunderman says

    I think that John has accurately and astutely described several salient “Lessons Learned.” There is one more salient Lesson Learned that comes to mind and it is a dark one: What passes for political leadership in this country is the fetishistic focusing on negative semiotics over substance. Form is trumping substance (no pun intended) to such a pathological degree that it appears that the general public has a decreasing fund of accurate knowledge about current events and a decreasing capacity to engaged in analytic reasoning. Few of our putative “leaders” exert the discipline to forego the simple descriptions of complex problems, the even simpler pseudo-solutions to complex problems and the hyperbolic negativism. Imagine how the tone and substance might change if a moderator in a political debate told the candidates: “You may not go negative. If you do, we will shut off your microphone and go on to the next candidate. We will present to you our view of the top 5 most urgent national issues and the top five most urgent international issues. We will then ask you to present detailed solutions that have a high probabilities of working politically, militarily, financially and environmentally. The moderator would change the semiotic backdrop: “Espouse fact-driven, detailed constructive, positive planfulness, or the American public does not want to hear from you.” If we do not do something like this soon, the political “marketplace of ideas” will continue to descend into nothing more than theater and ratings wars.