PR practitioners can learn quite a lot by paying attention to the current political scene. Doing so provides a tuition-free course in public relations that’s not in PR communication school syllabuses. Many of the lessons apply to non-political agency PR.
Below are some of the most important takeaways from politics that can be applied to corporate communications and public relations. Be assured that before the end of 2019 there will be many more.
- Just because someone tells you something doesn’t mean it’s true.
- Some of what is told to you that is true is not the full story because people seldom tell you things that are detrimental to them.
- Double check everything, as journalists do, even information from a client, before you tell it to a reporter.
Don’t Expect Loyalty
- Don’t expect your supervisors (in this case President Trump) to remain loyal to you if a PR crisis develops. As I’ve said before, if you want loyalty at the office, bring your dog to work.
- As some of you may know, or have experienced, agencies expect loyalty from their account people. But most often the loyalty isn’t returned from management, even when a client makes a ridiculous complaint against the account team.
- High corporate execs will often look for someone to blame, even if they cause the problem. President Trump’s actions prove this.
- While lying to the press is not a crime, in most instances, getting caught in a lie means you will not be considered a trustworthy source.
- If you’re an avid watcher of cable TV political news, you know that there’s very little that’s new. When crafting a political or PR campaign, the trick is to take the old and make it new by adding creative touches that work for the client and the media.
- Agency managers and supervisors will often take credit for programs when clients are happy, even if they had nothing to do with the work. When things go wrong, even though it was management’s fault, they’ll not hesitate to blame others, as President Trump did over the government shutdown.
- Don’t make promises to clients unless you are certain that you can fulfill them, unlike President Trump who promised his clients – the voters –that Mexico would pay for his wall.
- Most important: If your agency or client is under investigation for wrong doing, never lie to an investigator — or you may have the same jail address as many of Trump’s cohorts.
- Don’t try to hog the spotlight or take it away from someone. On Jan. 3, when Nancy Pelosi dominated press coverage after her Speaker of the House election, President Trump suddenly called a late afternoon press briefing. No questions, no answers. The media coverage said it was nothing but a stunt and made the president look jealous of Pelosi’s day in the sun.
- When speaking or writing, be precise in your use of words. After two years of specifically saying we need a wall at the border, Trump said, to paraphrase, call it whatever you want, even an orange.
- Be flexible and open to compromise during planning sessions. Don’t go in with a “my way or no way” attitude as President Trump did regarding his border wall.
- Don’t be discouraged if you are part of an agency pitch team that loses new business. Watch the cable TV pundits and you will notice how political campaign managers who advised losing candidates have resurfaced as “wise people.” Political pundits seem to survive despite being wildly wrong with their analysis.
Maintaining a Good Reputation
- Reporters don’t like to be lied to. A good example to remember is Chris Wallace calling out Sarah Huckabee Sanders when she gave misleading statistics regarding terrorists crossing from the Southern border.·
- It’s very easy to lose your good reputation with the press. Rudy Giuliani, heralded as America’s Mayor by the media for many years, saw his reputation crumble by telling half-truths and consistently changing his stories throughout the year. He joined President Trump’s first press secretary, Sean Spicer, whose previously good reputation with the press tumbled in 2017 because he was not truthful while representing the president.
- When account problems arise, innocent members of accounts teams shouldn’t count on colleagues or supervisors for protection. Agencies may sacrifice innocent account team members to keep a client.
- Being argumentative with reporters only leads to additional negative media coverage.
The Cruelest Month
- When T.S. Eliot wrote in his poem “The Waste Land” that “April is the cruelest month,” who knew that he would be referring to the political scene. It was during April that legal actions against Stephen Moore, Trump’s pick to join the Federal Reserve Board, were revived by the media, and that Joe Biden’s “touchy feely” side received negative news coverage. Important lesson to learn: When selecting a spokesperson, be aware that any past controversial actions by the individual might resurface.
- Just because you say something is off the record doesn’t mean that it is. The reporter has to agree – before you make the statement. Even then, your statement may surface.
- Washington is the epitome of the leaking culture. Lesson: A negative statement about a colleague, even when uttered behind closed-doors to people you trust, can leak. Don’t make comments about individuals that are in poor taste.
- Very Important: Just because you have a prestigious title doesn’t mean you know it all. As recent House and Senate hearings demonstrated, staffers usually know more about a situation than their supervisors (e.g. Senators and Representatives) and should take the lead when their expertise is greater. But don’t count on it. It’s difficult in our ego-driven business for a supervisor to admit someone with a lesser title knows more.
- Unlike the Democratic presidential hopefuls during the primary debates, be nice to members of your account team. You might need them to back you up if an account goes bad through no fault of yours.
- Regardless of your power position in an agency, there are always others willing to challenge you. Check the relationship between President Trump, Congress and the media.
- I’ve always advised that during a PR crisis the first step is to gather the facts and not rush to issue a statement. On Sept. 25, a White House official accidentally sent talking points to Democrats meant for allies of the president regarding Trump’s phone call with the president of Ukraine. Compounding the error was a follow-up re-call email. If you’re in a PR crisis situation, don’t give in to pressure to respond immediately. Think before you act. And remember, asking for a recall of information you sent never works – especially if it’s sent to the press.
- As the investigation into Trump’s Ukraine phone call showed, when a client is caught red handed, the first tactic the offender uses is often lying. Don’t become part of an attempted cover-up, no matter what your supervisor instructs you to do.
How Not to Act towards the Media
- Don’t think that holding a press conference to admit wrong doing will deter the press from continuing converge of the situation. If you don’t believe me, ask acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, who then said he was misunderstood.
- PR practitioners who pay attention to political happenings should be convinced by now that the tactic recommended by media trainers and self-proclaimed crisis specialists to talk around a question and turn a negative into a positive works infrequently. On a scale of 1 to 10, it rates a ½. Surrogates for President Trump always attempt to use the tactic. While it sometime works during cable TV interviews with reporters who are not cognizant of the latest facts of a situation, it definitely doesn’t work with interviewers like Chris Wallace of Fox. When he questioned Vice President Pence on Oct. 27, Pence consistently resorted to his talking points to avoid answering a question from Wallace. As a result, the Veep looked like a hired Trump gunslinger. And the tactic never works with reporters from major publications like the Wall Street Journal and New York Times, who, unlike many TV reporters, actually know the facts about stories they’re reporting.
- You would think that Kellyanne Conway, counselor to her boss, the president, would have learned that berating a reporter only results in additional negative coverage. Obviously not. Conway threatened a Washington Examiner reporter for including her husband in an article about Conway being considered as chief of staff to the president. The conversation with the reporter, during which she warned the journalist about retaliation, was released by the Examiner, resulting in significant major media negative coverage for Conway. Important to remember: PR practitioners should never threaten a reporter over articles. The journalist always gets the last word.
- Unlike the president, never believe that you’re the smartest person at your agency.
- If you’re defending a client in a PR crisis situation, quite often the less you say, the better. Prime example: Every time President Trump lashed out regarding the impeachment inquiry, reporters pointed out the many lies in his statements, adding credence to the negative media coverage.
- If you’re handling a client in a PR crisis, remember that the more the client claims innocence without supporting evidence, like the president does, the more the media will assume the client is guilty.
- Never assume that what a client tells you is the absolute truth. Like the president, many clients like to embellish facts provided to agencies. Always make certain that information a client provides is accurate before disseminating them to the media.
- If you ever want an example why “walking back” a statement is not always a good idea, watch the Oct. 20 Chris Wallace interview with White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney regarding his admission at a presser that Trump asked for a quid pro quo for providing Ukraine with American aid. Wallace again demonstrated why he is the best of all the cable interviewers by not backing down when Mulvaney denied saying what he said a few days earlier, even though it was on tape. The best strategy when trying to correct a statement, unless it relates to financial or legal matters, is to let it die a natural death. Attempting to “walk it back” only results in the original statements being rehashed by the media, as was Mulvaney’s attempt. Instead of “walking back” statements, my preferred response is to create a future-looking initiative with positive attributes.
Why PR People Should Get Involved in Political Campaigns
If you have the opportunity to work on a political PR account, jump on it. If you work at a firm that doesn’t handle political campaigns, volunteer to work for a candidate or a political party for an election cycle. Whatever you do, whatever you learn will help you throughout your career because it will broaden your thinking regarding different situations, as you work with and learn from people who rewrite the PR book continuously.
The great majority of political lessons learned during 2019 emanate from the actions of President Trump. Arguably the most important lesson learned that might apply to the machinations of your agency world is that promises made by a supervisor are not necessarily promises kept. As Niccolo Machiavelli wrote in “The Prince” – “The promise given was a necessity of the past: The word broken is a necessity of the present.”
And, of course, be wary of management that uses a Sharpie.
Arthur Solomon, a former journalist, was a senior VP/senior counselor at Burson-Marsteller, and was responsible for restructuring, managing and playing key roles in significant national and international sports and non-sports programs. He now is a frequent contributor to public relations publications, consults on public relations projects and is on the Seoul Peace Prize nominating committee. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.