By Robert Johnson, Partner, RIESTER Public Affairs, Washington, D.C.
After more than three years of watching President Trump in action, you may not be that interested in hearing about the lessons he’s leaving behind. But how often do you get the chance to witness a communications crisis at this level, of this magnitude? Almost never.
So many rules, traditions, and conventions have been revised, edited, or abandoned since 2016 that it’s tough to keep count. Maybe you’re fine with that. Maybe you’re not. Either way, it’s worth assessing the damage and learning from all that’s happened since the last national election.
Despite the risk of provoking a raging tweet storm (one we secretly wish for), here are 10 things communicators might glean from Trump’s public relations approach. These mostly are lessons about what not to do, but I accept you may feel otherwise. We can still be friends!
Never tweet alone. In the world of immediate commentary, being first is now more like being worst. Lots of people are shooting from the lip and suffering the consequences. Witness the President’s geographically-incorrect Super Bowl Champions tweet. Avoid the pain. Consider having a responsible person check your tweets first. Before Twitter, rapper Ice Cube said, “Check yourself before you wreck yourself?” On this point, he was ahead of his time.
The audience isn’t as dumb as you think. Take the First Lady’s “I really don’t care” jacket that debuted almost two years ago, as she boarded a plane to visit the border where immigrant children were being detained. At first, her aides brushed it off. Later, she agreed with her husband, saying it was aimed at the “left-wing media.” We knew that the moment the story broke. People are smart. Never assume otherwise.
Always maintain control. I’m not talking about the President restraining his public self. That would be refreshing. This is about directing your media engagements. Mr. Trump does it by standing in front of a helicopter that loudly waits to whisk him off the South Lawn of the White House. He can “hear” questions he likes, and pretend “unable to hear” those he doesn’t like. He didn’t invent this tactic, but he uses it often. In the real world, this translates to setting ground rules for engaging the media, having staff along to help keep order, and being better prepared than those asking the questions. Whirring helicopters are optional.
Work with the media. You don’t have to like them but you do need to maintain a professional relationship. Anything less, as we’ve seen with this White House, won’t end well for you. The President likes to attack the media. And there are times when that might cross your mind too. But remember this about reporters. They’re accustomed to asking questions, not being questioned. So, when you back them into a corner, expect them to respond the only way they know how - by getting even with you online, in print, or on the air. Yes, it’s true. Reporters do attempt to get even, a ripe topic for another column on another day.
Third party voices are key. We’ve learned the past three years that it’s impossible to go it alone for very long. Take the time to bring others on board before you launch your message. That way you’ll have broad support for your cause when critics start to have their say. It’s one thing for you to spout something, but it’s a hundred times better if you can count on a chorus of endorsements from credible people who’ll stand with you in trying times. Solos should be no-go’s.
Accept and admit being wrong. If you think you’re right but then find out you’re wrong, don’t double down. Try apologizing instead. Imagine how much different the first days of this Administration might have been if someone, anyone had been able to accept an impartial account of the Inauguration ceremony crowd estimate. We all saw it, so what’s left to fight about? Fighting is doubling down. When I was in politics we would let local law enforcement agencies pronounce crowd sizes. It’s much safer and by tomorrow, if left alone, nobody will care.
Always tell the truth. Do we really need to say this? Unfortunately, yes. But what if you knew that you could tell the truth even if you aren’t allowed or able to answer the question? When I led communications for the Transportation Security Administration several months after the 9/11 attacks, reporters kept asking questions that had answers I couldn’t share. My solution to maintain trust? “I know the answer but I can’t tell you right now. If, or when, I can, I will.” It worked every time.
Shut up. Stop talking. There’s no need to comment or react to everything the media reports. Journalists don’t like how they’re being treated by this President, but they most certainly love the epidemic of loose lips that has gripped Washington. In fact, it’s been proven by historians that we’ve not experienced this much leaking since World War II, when everyone stateside was constantly reminded that “Loose lips sink ships.” Does every news story deserve a response? No. Also, the part about historians endorsing a leaking epidemic is just a guess.
When all else fails, put more “toys in the crib.” This is a term political consultants use. By the way he behaves, Mr. Trump surely knows it. This is about changing the subject suddenly or unexpectedly on your opponents or the media, at every opportunity, by giving them more to play with, much more, in fact. It works. When there’s too much to focus on, then nothing gets the attention it deserves. And sometimes important things get overlooked, if not missed entirely. Sound familiar? Use this tactic sparingly. It really ought to be treated like a fire extinguisher, kept safely under glass, for emergencies only.
Remember your audience. The President calls it his base. In PR Nation, it’s an audience. “Base” is the political term for your ardent supporters, whereas an audience may be the likely target of your message, but it could be these people are not supporters, or customers. Although Mr. Trump’s focus on his base excludes everyone not wearing a red trucker hat, it’s amazing how many communicators forget who they’re talking to, selling to, or trying to convince of their point of view. Here, he goes overboard - to a fault - but his example is a reminder that in all PR efforts, audience is key.
Of course, this would all seem to be common sense, but many of us have worked for people, or organizations, who’ve violated one or more of these rules, giving solace perhaps to America’s top PR rule-bender, our toilet-tweeting commander in chief, that he’s not alone.