Media Lessons Learned From the Impeachment Hearings
Arthur Solomon, Public Relations Consultant
My first job in public relations was with a political firm, where I worked on campaigns ranging from local to presidential ones. My experience during those several years, before joining Burson-Marsteller, provided me with lessons that can never be learned from a communications’ school education. The most important was to never take your eye off the target, but don’t be afraid to dump an approach and switch tactics if the original plan isn’t working as hoped.
The above lessons were learned years prior to the House impeachment hearings leading up to the trial of President Trump in the Senate. The House hearings provided many important lessons in how to deal with the media. But the ones I have been practicing for several decades are still viable today.
It’s as sure that big fish will eat little fish that the trial of President Trump in the Senate will provide additional media lessons. There has already been one, and the trial has not yet commenced.
- The New York Times, in its January 6 edition, printed a tweet from Kevin McCarthy, the House Republican leader, saying, “While Democrats are trying to remove President Trump from office, the President is focused on removing terrorists from the face of the earth.” But the Democrats responded by saying the matters were not related and that the impeachment process could continue during a debate on Trump’s foreign policy. Lesson: If you are defending a client with a PR crisis, always expect negative tweets. The savvy PR practitioner should have crafted a series of responses as soon as the crisis developed that can be used as a retort.
For people paying attention, the House impeachment inquiries produced more than a few media approaches that can apply to all manner of PR programs:
- Democrats said the situation has changed and went ahead with their inquiries despite previously saying that impeachment had to be bi-partisan; however GOP congressional members stuck to their scripts and continued to tell fictionalized versions about both the facts that led to the impeachment and the procedures leading up to the vote. Lesson: Flexibility and sticking to talking points are both necessary when creating a media plan.
- But it was President Trump who rewrote his scripts many times: After saying he was too busy to watch the hearings it turned out that he did watch them and tweeted about how the Republicans supported him; he also said he welcomes a trial in the Senate; early on he said that he welcomes an impeachment because it would help him in the next election. Obviously he changed his mind on November 17, when he sent a six page letter to Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi slamming his impending impeachment. Fact checkers said the letter contained falsehoods. Lesson: Make certain that you know what you want to say before issuing statements to the media. Constant changing of positions makes the media not to believe what is said.
- During the hearings, Congressman would yield their speaking time to others who could better deliver the message, Lesson: During a press conference always make sure that there is more than once person to answer questions.
- During the hearings, the Democrats used constitutional experts to make their case for impeachment. Lesson: The same approach should be used when planning a media tour. Third party experts have more credibility than company spokespeople.
- During the hearings, every Republican kept repeating the same message points, even if they were not always true – “Democrats held their hearings in secret; the president was not permitted to have his lawyer present and Republicans were not given an opportunity to call witnesses,” to name a few. Lesson: Message points must be stressed during every media appearance.
- During the hearings, both Democrat and Republican committee members referred to notes. Lesson: Spokespeople should always have an information sheet they can refer to if necessary.
- When questioned, some members of the committees replied, “I don’t have that information. I’ll get it and get back to you.” Lesson: A person being interviewed should never wing it. There is nothing wrong with saying you’ll provide the information after checking.
- During the hearings, both Democrats and Republicans used graphics to make their points. Lesson: Always provide graphics that media outlets can use as artwork for use if they wish.
- After the hearings, Democrats and Republican committee members made themselves available for interviews. Lesson: After an interview, always let the reporter know whom to contact if there are any other questions, or if additional information is needed. Always immediately, via email, follow up with information important to the client that might not have not been covered during the interview. Very Important: Also, always send a synopsis of the interview to all agency PR and client personnel involved with the account, so they don’t get blind sided, and everyone is on the same track, if they are contacted by other media about the interview.
- All during the hearings many GOP congressmen, notably Chris Collins and Jim Jordan, kept screaming at the Democrats, as if shouting would make their case stronger or change minds. (Aside to the GOP shouters: Unless there is a constitutional amendment changing voting laws, hard of hearing voters are entitled to only one vote.) I’ve witnessed PR people doing the same thing to reporters when an unfavorable story about their client is reported. Don’t do it: Berating a reporter, or threatening to complain to his editors, will not change anything. If there are true errors in the story, inform the reporter about them and follow up in writing, pointing out the errors with corrective facts. Lesson: Reporters are more likely to listen to your complaints if you speak in a calm voice. Screaming at them is more likely to result in their hanging up on you.
- If you have more than one spokesperson at a press conference, make sure that each speaker has something newsworthy to contribute. Lesson: Reporters don’t have time to hear the same information repeated in different words. Many will leave before the conclusion. The impeachment hearings provide a good roadmap on how not to stage a press event.
- The impeachment inquiries proved a media tenet that should always be remembered when speaking to a reporter: Facts Matter. Despite the incomplete or misleading statements from some Congressmen, the opposition was able to refute them by reading from transcripts. Never tell a reporter that there were misquotes in an article, as I’ve heard account people do, unless you have the evidence to prove there were errors. Lesson: Telling a reporter that the client didn’t mean to say what was said doesn’t mean the reporter was wrong.
- During the hearings, the Democrats displayed a savvy command of how to gain positive media coverage by staggering the release of transcripts instead of releasing them all at once. Lesson: Copy that tactic whenever possible when releasing positive important news. If the news is negative to your client, release it all at once.
- After the hearing was concluded and Congress broke for the holiday recess the sniping between Trump and Pelosi, Democratic and Congressional Republicans did not diminish, leading to continuous news coverage. Lesson: PR people representing clients in crises always have to be prepared for unexpected and continuous coverage. Also, remember the follow-ups, which history shows can continue for years and sometime your client crisis will not be mentioned again until a similar PR crisis occurs for a different individual or entity.
- When representing a client with a PR problem consider House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s strategy of delaying delivering the impeachment papers to the Senate. By doing so additional negative information about President Trump was revealed that could strengthen the Democrats during the trial. Lesson: Do not rush to immediately answer media questions after a PR crisis occurs. Information helpful to your client might emerge by waiting for a couple of days. A statement like, “We’re investigating the situation and will provide more details as we learn them,” is my go-to media response immediately after a crisis happens.
More general important media take-a-ways that can be learned from the impeachment hearings are: 1 – Media tactics used were not created from tenets that were crafted by PR elders generations ago; 2 – If you don’t have relevant hard news, only new or creative approaches will result in coverage; 3 – Think out-of-the box and make certain that your program contains elements that work for both the client and the media; 4 – When dealing with the media discard the hackneyed old rules, 5 – Repeating the same talking points continuously might get some people to believe them (and will make your client happy), 6 – Be flexible, 7 – It was obvious that both Democratic and Republicans choreographed the approaches they used during the hearings; during a press conference, presentation or when pitching a story do the same thing, and 8 – Tough talk will not change minds.
Probably because she knew that the GOP controlled Senate would not vote to remove President Trump from office, after the conclusion of the impeachment hearings, Ms. Pelosi delayed submitting the impeachment charges to the Senate. Instead, the Democrats commenced a concerted media strategy of saying that unless witness were called any Senate trail would be unfair. (Still, unless additional bombshell information emerges before the end of the Senate trial, it’s unlikely that President Trump will be found guilty.)
But the strategy did have the affect of having some Republican senators say they want to hear from witnesses; importantly, most voter polling said the same.
There was also another tactic used by Ms. Pelosi during her standoff with GOP Sen. Mitch McConnell, about when to deliver the impeachment charges to the Senate that account personnel should use in dealings with clients. If a client, in this case Sen. McConnell, suggests doing something that you believe is wrong, don’t automatically agree with the suggestion. Tell the client why you feel it is wrong. Of course, if the client insists you have no choice but to comply, as long as it is not illegal or will not destroy your reputation with the media (by disseminating false information).
Call me cynical, which I am about many actions taken by politicians and many business people who run our corporations, including PR firms, advertising agencies and media companies. But given the fact that past administrations (George W. Bush and Barack Obama) were aware of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani‘s terrorist activities, but decided that killing him was not worth the dangers of retaliation by Iran to Americans and our allies, and given that White House spokespeople said the decision to eliminate Soleimani had been discussed for a long time, and given that different explanations for the attacks were provided by President Trump, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and other administration officials, it makes me wonder if the timing of taking out Soleimani might have been dictated in an attempt by the president to change the media subject from the possibility of additional impeachment charges being brought because of the continuing negative new impeachment-related news regarding a Trump cover-up that became public during the time Congress was on its holiday break. Or from the president’s desire to appear tougher than his predecessors.
If the reason for the attacks was to drown out the media coverage of the impeachment, it didn’t work. Trump’s Iranian action proved two things, which he should have known: There’s enough media to cover more than one story at a time, and, because of his continuous lying, even when he is telling the truth many people think of the Aesop Fable “The Boy Who Cried Wolf.”
The majority of the Republican tactics used during the impeaching hearings was old hat and was an attempt to put a cocoon around President Trump’s legal and media crises, unlike the Democrats, who used some innovative techniques.
If you are ever in a position where you are asked to implement a media approach for a client with a PR crisis, the methods used by the Democrats to make their points are much more aligned with a PR crisis maxim I coined many years ago, which has been appropriated by others in their writings (without, incidentally, giving credit to the originator). It’s that, “Unlike clothing, there is no one size fits all PR approach to a crisis. Each crisis needs original thinking.” The Democrats feel that way about the trial in the Senate.
About the Author: 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 some of the most significant national and international sports and non-sports programs. He also traveled internationally as a media adviser to high-ranking government officials. He now is a frequent contributor to public relations publications, consults on public relations projects and is on the