Some years ago, two clients on accounts I was managing — Gillette, for eight years, and the Seoul Olympic Committee, for three years — repeated a claim made by my client contact at Dow Chemical, an account on which I played a key role: “Reporters seem to like you and trust you.” The Gillette client added: “You remind me of a reporter rather than a PR person.”
I took that as a compliment. True that my being a journalist at three New York City dailies and one wire service prior to jumping the fence to the PR business strengthened my ability to think like a newsperson and pitch only stories that worked for both the reporter and the client. Doing that expanded my “media friends,” as reporters would put in a good word for me with their colleagues.
But the main reason I enjoy a good relationship with journalists is because I never knowingly provided wrong information, refused to disseminate faulty information or pitched stories that were devoid of interesting elements or news.
If I had to choose one word that was responsible for my good relationships with the media, the word would be “trust.” I’ve always felt that a truly newsworthy story will gain major coverage even if I let my young grandchildren pitch it. I’ve also felt that an obvious puff story will not pass muster with a reporter’s editors, despite the reporter wanting to help a pal. Most of the stories we pitch fall in between. That’s where likeability and trust plays the most important role in reporters' and editors’ decisions.
Another reason for my good media relationships was that I would provide reporters with story angles that had no relationship to my work. If I came up with of a good feature story, I’d tell reporters about it. They appreciated it when not only hearing from me when I needed their help.
One of the disadvantages of working as a consultant is that my office is in the apartment where I live. And as a political junkie, whose first job in PR was working with a political firm — where I worked on local, statewide and presidential campaigns — I’m drawn to the daily White House media briefings. They provide a blue print on how to continually to lose credibility with the media.
The briefings provide three elements of how PR spokespeople should not act. They encompass demeanor, credibility and, most important, trust.
Demeanor: When asked questions they would rather not answer, both Sean Spicer and Sarah Huckabee Sanders argue with reporters, accusing them of having an agenda and missing the big picture.
Credibility: Spicer and Sanders lose credibility when trying to spin what the President said, even when the comments have been covered and reported numerous times.
Trust: Spokespersons’ answers to questions have been debunked many times. Losing the confidence of journalists can derail a PR person’s career.
Both Spicer and Huckabee Sanders have been guilty of violating all three doctrines. They’re also guilty of acting like computers: junk in, junk out, instead of checking the truthfulness and accuracy of the information they defend.
Everyone who’s been in the PR circus for some time has worked with difficult clients, some of whom have purposely provided inaccurate information to the account team and/or have skirted the truth of information they wanted released to the media. Some cable TV commentators have expressed feeling sorry for Spicer and Sanders for having to work with such a client. But remember, Trump’s spokespersons were not forced to accept their roles. Add in Kellyanne Conway’s “alternative facts” strategy, and you have the perfect recipe for how to lose credibility with the media.
What isn’t excusable are spokespersons’ demeanors when defending their client and their vigorous defense of Trump despite concrete evidence that he lied. (Full disclosure: During my career, I have declined working with clients whose messages I disagreed with or knew to be false. I also have been questioned by the FBI because of media contacts I made during an overseas assignment. I was treated with respect and admire the professionalism of the agents who questioned me.)
On May 13, the Wall Street Journal ran a story claiming that Trump is considering restructuring his communications team because of their inability to stem the negative coverage about his firing of Comey. If true, it’s just another indication of what every unbiased student of journalism knows: dealing with the D.C. press corp is vastly different than the days when Trump was the darling of the gossip journals. A crisis client can hire the best crisis experts in the universe and the negative coverage will not abate until the story runs its course. That will be up to the journalists, not PR people.
When I was charged with leading Western journalists to the DMZ, I said they shouldn’t make any gestures to the North Korean soldiers, who were only a few yards away, because pictures were being taken and would be used for propaganda purposes. Trump should have followed that advice when, a day after his firing of Comey, photos of him glad-handling and laughing with Russian diplomats were released by the Russian government. The reaction from the White House was that they didn’t think the photos would be released, which calls into question the judgment, the inexperience and naiveté of Trump’s team, as well as the President.
When a journalist friend heard I was going to take a job in PR, he said, “I guess I can no longer believe what you say.” He said it as a joke but it had much truth to it. Many journalists have always distrusted information from PR people and also accused them of not making top corporate execs available for interviews as a means of protecting them from saying the wrong things (which is often true). Because of the actions of Trump and his spokespeople, the distrust of PR people is certain to continue. And for good reason.
For many years, I’ve advised clients in crisis not to act rash and to think things over before responding to the media about a crisis. Trump’s tweets have once again validated that thinking.
Despite Trump’s threatening tweet regarding Comey, the U.S. is still not a totalitarian state, although Trump’s past statements admiring dictator Putin and other totalitarian leaders is a cause for concern. Trump and his communications team aren’t the only ones who have lost credibility. Howard Kurtz lost whatever little credibility he had left on May 14 by again having Conway as a guest on his Fox News Media Buzz program, despite her reputation, which matches Trump’s, for creating their own version of truthfulness.
The GOP’s congressional leadership has similarly lost credibility because of its lock-step defense of Trump’s less than democratic actions, like firing the investigator leading the probe into possible Trump and Russian collusion ties.
Nikki Haley, the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., is on record as saying that Kim Jong-un, the North Korean dictator, is in a state of paranoia. Many people think President Trump suffers from the same malady. As the old joke goes, “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.”
Arthur Solomon was a senior VP at Burson-Marsteller. He now is a contributor to public relations and sports business publications, consults on PR projects and was on the Seoul Peace Prize nominating committee. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.