As readers of this website know, I have always said that paying attention to the political scene can provide both novice and experienced PR pros with lessons that are not taught in communications schools.
For the past two weeks, the Democratic and Republican conventions have dominated news coverage. Now that they are history, the dominant coverage, at least until we get closer to Election Day, will return to the aspect of American life that will probably have the biggest affect on the presidential election: The continuing Covid-19 crisis and the inability of the Trump administration to “magically” make it go away, augmented by his anything goes statements.
It’s been almost a year since the deadly and seemingly never-ending novel coronavirus pandemic has changed life in America. And many lessons learned from the political responses to the coronavirus crises can be applied to individual, brand and corporate crises.
One of the most difficult situations for PR people during a crisis is when a client free-lances media replies instead of adhering to prepared remarks, such as President Trump does almost daily in his press briefings and twitter comments.
Trump’s conduct during the coronavirus scare provides a Master Class-like seminar that PR practitioners can use in agency training sessions to demonstrate how PR crises can be made worse by clients, client surrogates, like Vice President Pence and Larry Kudlow, and PR staffers, when they try to justify or clarify the president’s statements. Pence, in particular, often makes the situation worse by talking around reporter’s questions, instead of answering them, making it obvious to viewers that he is not answering the questions. Doing so makes it necessary for reporters to ignore the comments and then correct them in subsequent reporting. Kudlow is just ridiculous. His statements can be summed up as “deny, deny, and deny and lie, lie, lie,” like his boss in the White House.”
PR crises history shows that crises are often worsened by the comments from top executives of the affected entities during their pressers. They are then made worse by PR people when they lash out at the press for writing negative stories about the client, much like President Trump’s multiple press secretaries. (Trump has had so many press secretaries that it resembles how many PR agencies treat employees; nothing but an employee number.).
As is often the case in the non-political sector during a crisis, the White House, copying the PR crises responses of corporate America, first denied that there was a problem, (remember Boeing’s, and BP’s early comments), then accused others of exaggerating what was a minor problem (remember Wells Fargo’s and BP’s early comments), followed by blaming others for the problem (remember how Boeing and BP did the same). Trump also called the coronavirus a “Democratic hoax”.
Below are several examples of what President Trump and his colleagues did wrong, and by doing so turned a serious health problem not of his making into a PR crisis situation. This is not a by-the-book PR crisis plan. It’s a how not to act during a crisis presser in a “What Was Said,” “What Was the Result” format.
What Was Said: Whether on purpose or because he just can’t control himself, the president has continuously lashed out and criticized political foes.
What Was The Result: In a time of national crisis, the president’s words were replayed by conservative media because it appealed to right-wing audiences; was rejected by liberal media because rejecting it appealed to their audiences. Instead of healing the divided country during this time of national crisis, the affect was to deepen the political schism.
What Was Said: Trump many times said that he wasn’t getting the thanks from governor’s he was helping and criticized some by name, including governors who were addressing the coronavirus epidemic in their states before the president took it seriously.
What Was The Result: The cry baby attacks by the president wanting “appreciation for his help” resulted in positive news coverage for the governors. Again, the affect was to deepen the political schism.
What Was Said: Even in this time of crisis, the president had to be flattered during his pressers and showed little empathy for people.
What Was The Result: Some political commentators said it again proved what they were saying for years, that what is necessary in a leader during a time of crisis is missing from Trump – the ability to bring a divided nation together and to show empathy and concern for people being affected by the coronavirus. But most Fox News shows, putting their ratings ahead of people dying and the daily needs of people, strongly supported the president. Again the affect was to deepen the political schism. (Conservative commentators like Sean Hannity, Trish Regan and Rush Limbaugh led the false narrative that the Democrats were using the coronavirus to bring down Trump. Ms Regan was fired by Fox News for her comments; obviously her ratings weren’t as high as Hannity’s)
What Was Said: During his coronavirus pressers, the president continued his attacks on the media, claiming that they were reporting fake news and purposely running anti-Trump stories.
What Was The Result: The result was disastrous for the president. In order to show that their reporting was factual, TV stations replayed Trump’s original remarks and print pubs report on it. Nevertheless, the president denied saying what he said, which is his usual practice, even though what he said was on live TV.
What Was Said: The president continually made scientific statements based on his “hunch,’ instead of facts.
What Was The Result: This resulted in ongoing criticism by medical authorities that were replayed many times on TV programs and written about in print pubs.
What Was Said: When he heard that Senator Romney was in isolation because of coronavirus exposure, Trump mockingly said, “Gee, that’s too bad.” When the test came back negative, he tweeted, “This is really great news! I am so happy I can barely speak.”
What Was The Result: The use of sarcasm in a potentially life- threatening situation was condemned by all but the president’s right-wing defenders. Some critics of the president said it publicly shows what an awful person he is.
What Was Said: The president said he always knew the coronavirus would be terrible and his remarks down playing the threat was to calm people.
What Was The Result: The remark made no sense, except to his zealous followers. Others pointed out that if the president knew the serious of the problem, why did he make statements on his daily pressers that put people in danger.
The president’s remarks are not unusual for individuals or business entities in a crisis situation, as they attempt to downplay the severity of a crisis. Novice PR people should know that it hardly ever works. The examples above demonstrate the necessity of speaking carefully, factually and without rancor when a client in crisis is engaged with the media. Of special interest to PR practitioners are several examples that parallel Mr. Trump’s remarks regarding dealing with the media, using two long-term, and still on going crises, situations of major entities – Boeing and Wells Fargo.
The Media Similarities:
- President Trump accused the media of over blowing the coronavirus situation. Early on, so did Boeing and Wells Fargo down play their situations.
- Instead of relying on scientific facts, the president resorted to “hunch” thinking regarding medicines that can cure the coronavirus. Boeing consistently used its CEO’s non-scientific opinion in his comments regarding when the 737 Max would again be flying.
- The White House first denied in media comments that there was a problem. So did Boeing and Wells Fargo.
- The President refused to take any responsibility for the spread of the coronavirus by his refusing to take immediate action to control the situation. So did Boeing and Wells Fargo.
- The president blamed political opponents for over blowing the situation and called the coronavirus a “Democratic hoax.” Boeing also blamed others for its problems.
All of the above remarks have one thing in common: They resulted in massive negative media coverage when they were proven wrong (which is usually the case in a major PR crisis situation).
But one PR lesson during this coronavirus epidemic dates back generations: Once someone exaggerates or lies to the media, everything else the individual says will be treated with skepticism. That’s the sad reality of our present situation. Because of his history of habitually lying, exaggerating and misleading statements, even when President Trump is truthful many people do not believe him. In a time of national emergency, like now, a president who can be trusted is needed. Sadly, we don’t have one. Instead we have a “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” situation.
President Trump will surely get the recognition from historians that his ego craves. Except, it will not be what he wants. Instead of being hailed as a great president, history will record him as an impeached, blustering, dishonest, lying president, who single handily might have destroyed one of America’s great political parties, and thus far has fired five inspector generals who were investigating wrong doings in various parts of his administration, who is under investigation himself, and who will probably be remembered as the worst president in history.
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 optimum.net.