Clarity CEO Sami McCabe has recently written about how the PR industry should respond to Brexit and the Trump presidency. Associate Director Ashley Norris has also examined how Trump could actually prove to be a blessing in disguise for the media industry.
I, however, want to turn my attention to a key aspect of how Trump and his team are handling communications now they are actually in control. Barely three weeks in, there are plenty of great lessons for people working in comms and at brands who want to get their name known coming from the Trump administration. Most, it has to be said, would be listed in the section headed “Don’t” rather than the one titled “Do”.
One of the latest comes from Kellyanne Conway, who invented an incident – the Bowling Green massacre – in order to further justify the new policy that stops immigrants from seven nations entering the U.S. Now, as controversial as the policy itself may be, I want to focus on why what Kellyanne Conway did was such a big no-no from a comms point of view.
It isn’t exactly rocket science. You should never, ever tell a barefaced lie to the media. We already know that the Trump administration is happy to offer “alternative facts” – and is seemingly unfazed by the fallout from these incidents. But in the long term, even when hasty corrections and clarifications have been made, your credibility is going to be obliterated.
While much of the media coverage of this incident – and, to be fair, much of the last three weeks – has the warped appeal of watching a car crash, people are going to stop paying attention to you altogether. Conway et al could be announcing genuine policies to put an end to poverty and hunger and no one would pay any attention because what they say isn’t worth listening to. Eventually, too, the media will be sick and tired of having to cover these lies and they will never come to you again. No matter how important you are (or think you are), they will pick up their cameras and leave, never to return.
So – what should you do when you’re in the position of having to announce an unpopular policy or decision?
Well, firstly, you must stick to the facts. Talk about how the decision has been made, what factors were considered, the other potential paths that could have been taken, and why you settled on the chosen option.
It’s important to keep your cool, especially if you are on live TV, or the interviewer(s) will smell blood and attempt to tie you up in knots. Think about what you are saying before you say it, not while (or in Conway’s case, after) you say it.
And if you want to draw on examples to back up your message, then do your homework. You need solid evidence to make your case effectively. Dubious evidence – or even non-existent evidence – just make you look like a fool.
In Conway’s case, the story became not the decision – but the spokesperson. While this may have been a deliberate move – using the spokesperson’s mistake as a focal point in order to distract from the odious policy announcement – this isn’t something we would recommend. It runs the risk of bringing more attention to whatever it is you are trying to avert attention from. It also outs you as someone prepared to stretch the truth – even tell an outright lie – in order to get what they want.
Conway claimed after making the claim that she had “misspoken” – a roundabout way of saying she was wrong – but in many ways the damage had already been done (and, it seems, it wasn’t the first time she had made this claim). If her intention was to further agitate anti-immigrant sentiment, then she had achieved it, but if she had actually been attempting to make a serious justification of the policy decision – that stands up to scrutiny – then it was an utter failure.
Should you ever find that you have misspoken, in conversations with the media, then you should correct yourself as quickly as possible. If you have prepared properly, then you should not find yourself in this position anyway, but a quick and contrite admission should be made in order to rectify the error.
It may turn out that Conway’s role is as part of the Trump administration’s smokescreen to push through unpopular and morally questionable policies with as little scrutiny as possible – but the media will get wise to this very soon.
In terms of learnings for PR pros, marketers, and anyone working in comms, the Trump administration is already showing itself to be a fertile source of lessons. We’ll post further thoughts very soon.