verb, doubt the honesty or reliability of; regard with suspicion.
Current Definition: medical reports on President Trump condition.
(Author’s Note: This is the sixth in a series of political articles for CommPRO.biz that I’ll be writing leading up to Election Day. FYI – My first public relations job was with a political firm, where I worked on local, statewide and presidential campaigns. This column highlights what PR practitioners should learn from the misleading information regarding President Trump’s illness that has been disseminated, and how following the White House formula will result in media distrust and ruin the reputations of PR people and their clients.)
The mishandling of President Trump’s Covid-19 illness should provide a valuable lesson for PR practitioners, regardless of their political persuasion: Spinning a story doesn’t work and most often results in a loss of media trust. And once the media distrusts what you or your client says, you may never again regain their trust.
This has been proven in the corporate world, where reporters are still skeptical of what companies like Boeing, Wells Fargo and Volkswagen say. But that’s only important to people who own stock in those companies and people who depend on those companies for a living.
Comparatively speaking, the distrust of those companies for their long history of misleading public statements, and attempting to blame others for their problems, is insignificant compared to when the loss of trust can have a negative influence on national and international affairs, which brings us to President Trump.
For almost four years, the most respected facets of the media have been skeptical of what the president and his communication’s staff disseminates, and for good reason. Much of what they tell the press and Americans has been proven untrue time and time again. To put it bluntly the president, his press secretaries, advisors and surrogates are not ashamed of lying or being called fabricators for their reinventing proven facts. (As former Trump Counselor Kellyanne Conway said during a Meet the Press interview on January 22, 2017, “We have alternative facts.”)
But when the most powerful person in the world gets sick and his staff puts out contradicting statements that can’ not be dismissed as “just politics.” That’s not the way things are supposed to happen in a democracy that elects its leaders. The White House’s behavior is a mirror image of what the dictators that President Trump admires so much do. The information regarding the condition of the president depends on who is speaking on behalf of the White House at any moment. (Don’t take anything said as the truth. Following the script since Trump took office, what is said one moment will be contradicted or denied the next moment, even if it’s on tape.)
On October 3, we heard from White House spokesmen that the president is doing fine and that he is not doing that well and needed oxygen. But the New York Times reported that Dr. Sean P. Conley, the White House physician, said the president was not currently receiving supplemental oxygen nor would he say if the president had received oxygen to help his breathing. The president’s chief of staff, Mark Meadows, told reporters, “The president’s vitals over the last 24 hours were very concerning and the next 48 hours will be critical in terms of his care” and that, “We’re still not on a clear path to a full recovery.” But a few hours later the president put out a video saying he felt well enough to begin his rallies. Either someone is lying or someone is delusional.
The October 3 remarks about the president’s condition was confusing for the media and, more important, for the American public and many doctors who specialize in Covid-19, who were asked their opinions about the president’s condition by reporters trying to inform the public. The statements are confusing, they said. We don’t have sufficient information to provide an informed opinion.
Then during an October 4 briefing, Dr. Conley replied to a reporter’s question by saying, “I’m not going to get into the specifics of his care.” And when another reporter asked if the president received additional oxygen treatment(s), Dr. Conley said he didn’t know. He would have to check with the nurse. A doctor not knowing the treatment of a patient – in this case the president of the U.S. – not believable. In addition, Dr. Conley refused to discuss the results of the president’s lung scans. What was missing from the briefing was trust. Instead, the briefing resulted in mistrust of the information that was provided. Instead of assuring the public that the president was on the road to recovery, some observers compared the briefing to a cover-up. Also adding to the distrust of the briefing by some doctors was the announcement that the president might be released on October 5th. As one doctor not affiliated with the president’s health team said, one of his meds requires a five day stay in the hospital. I don’t know why he might be discharged sooner. (Since doctors cannot forcibly keep a patient in a hospital, could it be that the president, disregarding his physician’s advice, said, “I’m going home, no matter what you say?” Given the president’s disregard of what his medical scientists have said about the coronavirus since February, that’s definitely a possibility.) )
What has been missing since it was announced that the president contracted Covid-19 was a comprehensive medical report on the president’s condition by respected Covid-19 specialists not connected with the White House, not the drip-by-drip announcements by different people who say different things or the president’s personal physician.
In contrast to the White House’s drip-by-drip announcements of the president’s medical condition, the Biden campaign announced on October 3 that he will be tested more frequently for Covid-19 and that it will release the results of every coronavirus test taken by the former vice-president. That’s the way to gain trust.
The way the White House has handled the news of the president’s condition is a disgrace, just as its mishandling of coronavirus information has been since last February.
(As I write this on October 5, 7,417,845 Americans have been infected with Covid-19 and 209,721 have died, according to John Hopkins University. Medical scientists say many of these deaths could have been prevented simply by the wearing of a mask. Instead of leading by example, President Trump mocked mask wearing and is being treated for Covid-19 at the Walter Reed National Military Center while Covid-19 is spreading among attendees at his Rose Garden event for Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett on September 26, and members of the White House staff and reporters covering the White House are concerned for their own health.)
The despicable nature of Trump and his White House lackeys was never better exposed when it was reported that prior to their September 29 debate no one informed Biden that the president had tested positive for Covid. Also, giving credence to the White House attempt to cover-up Trump’s health situation was that on the afternoon of October 4, the Wall Street Journal reported “President Trump didn’t disclose a positive result from a rapid test for Covid-19 on Thursday while awaiting the findings from a more thorough coronavirus screening, according to people familiar with the matter.”
(The coverage of the president’s illness on the October 4 Media Buzz, the Howie Kurtz program on Fox, again showed why it is a journalistic joke. It provided Hogan Gidley, the Trump campaign’s national press secretary with an open mike to rattle off every Trump campaign talking point, and disparagement of Biden, without being challenged by Kurtz. In addition, Kurtz never corrected Gidley’s lies and tossed him softball questions.)
Trump spokespeople must be dizzy from attempting to spin the facts of how the president handled the coronavirus. In an attempt to turn lemons into lemonade, some supporters of the president said that his having Covid could work to his advantage and gain him votes. The president, they say, will now be able to tell the public “I now am one of you and realize that mask wearing and social distancing must be taken seriously.” Another example of spin was the October 4 remarks of Trump senior advisor Jason Miller on Ana Cabrera’s CNN program. Miller said that the president feels that defeating the cornoavirus is the biggest problem in the U.S. However, there is considerable tape, including one released by Bob Woodward recorded during his interviews with Trump for his book Rage, showing the president saying that opening up the economy takes precedence over the coronavirus. (Media trainers should use Ms. Cabrera’s interview to demonstrate how a reporter acts when being lied to.)
There is a Yiddish word that applies to people who spin the above nonsense. It is “Chutzpah,” which Leo Rosten in The Joys of Yiddish defines as “gall, brazen nerve, effrontery, incredible ‘guts’, presumption plus arrogance such as no other word and no other language can do justice to.”
There’s also a widely used term in English that applies to President Trump falling ill with Covid-19. It is “poetic justice.” The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines it as “an outcome in which vice is punished and virtue rewarded usually in a manner peculiarly or ironically appropriate.”
On October 5, it was revealed that White House fabulist Kayleigh McEnany had Covid-19. At the rate Trump fabricators are going down we’re likely to see new faces on TV deny reality. (New TV season, new talent.) Actually, it doesn’t matter who the spokesperson is. Thus far, ever since Trump has announced for the presidency, they all have been replaceable liars.
Even prior to being sworn in as the 58th president on January 20, 2017, Trump has refused to issue a complete medical history (as well as his tax returns), resulting in a The Boy Who Cried Wolf situation. The attempts by the president’s surrogates to spin the truth reminds me of another story, about Hans Brinker, the Dutch boy who saves his country by putting his finger in a leaking dike, except in the president’s situation the mouth of Trump’s surrogates have replaced the finger and they can not control the flood of stories on the news cycles pointing out the inaccuracies and lies from the White House.
In an editorial titled “White House Medical Confusion” in its October 5 edition, the Wall Street Journal wrote, “Americans want to know the truth about the President’s health, which bears on current governance and the election in a month. The White House needs to reassure Americans not with happy talk but with daily medical briefings that are candid and complete.” (My excellent advice to readers: Don’t hold your breath.)
Before leaving the hospital, Trump tweeted, “Don’t be afraid of Covid. Don’t let it dominate your life. We have developed, under the Trump Administration, some really great drugs & knowledge. I feel better than I did 20 years ago!” That tweet proved that Trump is as dangerous as Covid.
Trump hoped to go down in history as the greatest president of the U.S. History will more likely record him as the super-spread Covid-19 president. It’s now October 5. To paraphrase TV announcers: “Don’t switch to another website, There’s more Covid to come.”
In order to be successful, PR practitioners must gain the trust of their clients and the media. In order to be believed political leaders must be trusted.
Sadly, instead of providing trust the Trump White House has provided mistrust.
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 Seoul Peace Prize nominating committee. He can be reached at arthursolomon4pr (at) juno.com and artsolomon4pr(at)optimum.net.