Some public relations crises are a surprise, like a plant explosion or when a high-ranking corporate executive is arrested for criminal behavior. But other crises are self inflicted. Case in point: the way President Trump’s communication staff treats the press.
Almost immediately after Trump’s inauguration, misleading and outright lying became a staple tactic of the President’s communications staff, his advisors and surrogates. And a media crisis was born that has continued since.
Even before the election, Trump’s PR crisis began to emerge when he said, without proof, at his presidential announcement speech on June 16, 2015 that, “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.” He compounded that sentiment in 2017 when he defended the white nationalists who protested in Charlottesville, by saying they included “some very fine people.”
There’s an old saying, “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” which is meant to convey the continuation of family characteristics. In Trump’s case, his media ineptitude also extends to his communications staff.
Antagonizing the media is never a good way to tune down a media crisis. But the President and his spokespeople obviously feel differently. A few of their biggest media blunders, which have added to his ongoing PR crisis:
• The President calling every news story he doesn’t like “fake news.”
• The President denigrating, by name, reporters whose stories and questions he doesn’t like.
• Sean Spicer, his first press secretary, telling reporters on national television that they used faulty information and photographs to downplay the crowd at Trump’s inauguration, insisting that Trump drew more spectators than President Obama.
• Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Trump’s present press secretary, consistently calling news stories slanted and insisting that known facts aren't accurate.
• Kellyanne Conway almost being truthful when she said she relies on “alternative facts.”
There’s only one sure way to stem a PR crisis: tell the truth as soon as the facts are known. Attempting to hide facts or outright lying, as Trump's spokespeople do, only leads to additional negative coverage.
Here are some pointers that might help abate negative coverage during a media crisis:
• It’s okay to tell the press that you’re still gathering facts and will release them when they’re known, even if that means waiting for a few days.
• Never insult the press, as White House media briefer Sean Spicer did in 2016 and 2017 and Sara Huckabee Sanders has done numerous times since she became press secretary.
• Investigative journalists uncover lies. Don’t lie.
• When a company is in crisis, it’s crucial for everyone to be on the same page. (Trump’s reasons for firing former FBI director James Comey has changed so many times that anything he or his surrogates now say about the issue is never believed.)
• A company with a long history of problems should always expect negative or cynical media coverage during a new PR crisis.
• Releasing bad news to get ahead of the story won’t reduce negative coverage.
• Telling obvious lies to the media to protect a client can taint you forever.
• Avoid the drip-by-drip method. All bad news should be released at the same time.
• Unlike Fox, which acts like a Trump PR firm, the days of reporters helping you during a PR crisis has long past. Now every reporter tries to be the first to break a negative story.
• Releasing bad news late Friday, Saturday or during a long weekend will not result in less negative coverage.
Releasing bad news late Friday might’ve made sense during the days when newspapers were the prime source of information and Saturday papers were historically thin with smaller news budgets. That all changed with the advent of the 24/7 cable TV news cycle.
Today, it’s impossible to hide bad news. A bad story is now covered around the clock and diced, sliced, analyzed and repeated by hard news outlets, cable TV programs and radio talk shows, not to mention across social media. Nevertheless, the practice of releasing bad news on weekends or holidays still occurs.
It’s a PR tenet that should’ve been trashed years ago, along with another oldie that doesn’t work: releasing bad news to get ahead of the story. All that does is lead to additional negative coverage.
During a PR crisis, there’s only one way to lessen negative media coverage: be truthful. In doing so, in admitting that your client isn’t trying to hide facts and is attempting to correct the situation, you might also gain some positive coverage.
And remember, there’s no one-size-fits-all PR crisis plan. Every crisis deserves new thinking.
Arthur Solomon was a senior VP at Burson-Marsteller. He’s now 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.