Arthur Solomon, Public Relations Consultant
What is it with President Trump and his spokespeople? Are they, as is the president, incapable of telling the truth, or is Trump a carrier of the “lying virus” and has infected his staff?
First. Sean Spicer, the initial White House press spokesperson, “exaggerated” facts, despite everyone seeing that he was fibbing. Then, his successor, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, began trying to out lie the president when answering press questions. And Hope Hicks, the former White House communications director, admitted to a House investigating committee that she told” white lies” for the president. But the most creative liar is probably Kellyanne Conway, the invent0r of alternative facts. To paraphrase William Shakespeare from “Romeo and Juliet,” — “A lie is a lie by any other name.”
Some people in our business are known to exaggerate when dealing with the media, believing, as does the Trump White House that it’s not a lie unless you get caught, as Ms. Sanders did on November 7, even though a national TV audience could see that she was doing what seemingly comes naturally to her – lying.
Sanders said that CNN’s Jim Acosta had his White House credentials taken away because “he placed his hands” on an intern, when she tried to take a microphone from him during a heated exchange with the president. The incident received major coverage, not only because Acosta’s credentials were revoked but because it was obvious that Ms. Sanders was once again being untruthful.
Later that night, the Washington Post reported that “White House press secretary Sarah Sanders, on Wednesday night, shared a video of CNN reporter Jim Acosta that appeared to have been altered to make his actions at a news conference look more aggressive toward a White House intern.”
Then, the November 8 New York Times ran a story quoting other reporters at the briefing saying that Acosta never placed his hands on the intern. Included in the story was a statement from CNN that said Sanders lied and provided fraudulent accusations and cited an incident that never happened. (I saw what happened live. Acosta never placed his hands on the intern when she attempted to retrieve the mike.)
Later in the day, numerous major news organizations, including Trump-supporting Fox News, reported that Sanders had used a doctored video to portray the Acosta-intern incident. Side stepping whether the video was doctored, Sanders said, reported the Washington Post, that “The question is: did the reporter make contact or not? The video is clear, he did. We stand by our statement.”
Of course, Trump supporters claim, and will continue to claim, that the video was not doctored and saying so is a leftist lie. However, the November 9 Wall Street Journal reported that Storyful, a social media intelligence agency, said, “These frames do not appear in the original C-Span footage, and appear to exaggerate the actions of Acosta.” A November 8 story about the incident on MarketWatch was headlined, “Video of Acosta incident posted by White House press secretary Sarah Sanders contains extra frames.” Both Stotryful and MarketWatch are owned by News Corp, the parent company of the Wall Street Journal, certainly not a liberal bastion. Also, Hany Farid, a
And what was the enlightening response from President Trump, when he was asked about the doctored tape: “Nobody manipulated it. Give me a break!”
Anyone who has watched the White House press briefings knows that Acosta is the most aggressive questioner at the sessions. Certainly, the president knows that. Personally, I think that the tussle between Trump and Acosta was a planned White House strategy waiting for the proper occasion to be implemented. If, not, there was a simple solution to avoid the confrontation: Just don’t take questions from Ascosa.
The president’s inability to tell the truth, and nothing but the truth, was evident again when he denied knowing Matthew Whitaker, who he appointed as acting attorney general. As soon as negative information about Whitaker’s past was reported. Trump falsely claimed he didn’t know Whitaker, despite having previously praised him, as an undistorted TV tape showed. The president has a habit of “not knowing” or running away from people who worked for him, when negative information about them surfaces. Remember how he hardly knew Michael Cohen or Paul Manafort? (Trump was never in the Army, as I was. But if he was, I wouldn’t want him or Dick Chaney, another chickenhawk that like our president also received five deferments to avoid serving, guarding my back in the same fox hole with me.)
Whitaker, as everyone should know, had publicly disparaged the Mueller investigation and spoke of how to end it, when he was interviewed on television. Many people said that was why Trump appointed him. But both Democrats and Republicans said Whitaker’s comments should preclude him from supervising Mueller, causing the president to claim he doesn’t know his appointee. (As Robert Burns wrote in his poem “To a Mouse,” — “The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry.’)
This give-and-take between the White House and the media is only one of many valuable lessons that young PR people who pay attention to the political scene should have learned, especially those who will work on clients with a PR crisis. Unfortunately, instead of being remembered so they can be applied to clients, the lessons from the White House spokespeople should be trashed.
Prior to joining Burson-Marsteller, where as senior vice president/senior counselor I was responsible for restructuring, managing and playing key roles in some of the most significant national and international sports and non-sports programs, as well as traveling the world with high-ranking government officials as a media advisor, I also worked at a political PR firm and was a reporter and editor at New York City papers.
I was always sympathetic to the plight of PR people, whose job it was to “place” a story and helped them whenever I could. I’m sure that sometime the information provided by PR people wasn’t entirely accurate. If they were misled by their clients, I wouldn’t blame the PR person. But if I knew that I was deliberately being given false information, as the president and his spokespeople constantly do, that PR person was on my “never use” list.
So my advice to young PR people is to pay attention to the PR aspects of the political scene. There’s a lot that you can learn that may come in handy during your career working for nonpolitical clients.
A few lessons to remember:
- Always research facts provided by clients to the best extent possible before disseminating it to the media. (Like Ms. Sanders, maybe, didn’t before distributing a doctored tape.)
- Never be pressured to pitch a story you know is false.(Ours is a small business, and you never know when the reporter you misled today might not only blacklist you but tell his colleagues that you are not a trustworthy source.)
- Even if you’re flacking for a top Fortune 500 company, the media will not be impressed by your CEO (in this case Trump, or his spokespersons, Mses Sanders and Conway), when they are after a story).
- Your PR title at a company might impress your mother, but not members of the extended media family. (So don’t take yourself too seriously because your business card reads “Senior Executive” or some other title that is meaningless to journalists. Remember, the media considers you a propaganda merchant, regardless of the square footage of your office, which you certainly are.)
- Remember, the larger the company, the closer it comes under media scrutiny.
- Always be honest when dealing with the media. (It will benefit you when you need help. Being dishonest with information, will not be forgotten by the reporter you attempted to hood wink and his extended media family.)
- Spend some time paying attention to the political scene, and watch the too infrequent White House press briefings, (but take what political spokespersons and politicians say with a grain of salt, especially if they work for Trump).The media relations lessons you’ll learn are not available anywhere else. The syllabus will include a master’s class in how to lose credibility with the media, taught by Trump and Sanders, with Kellyanne Conway as a frequent lecturer. Missing from the syllabus will be a class in ethics.
If you studied English lit and philosophy in college, you might remember Niccolò Machiavelli’s quote from “The Prince” — “The promise given was a necessity of the past: the word broken is a necessity of the present,” (especially relevant when a supervisor promises you a future salary increase and promotion to keep you from leaving for another agency). And also what Sir Walter Scott wrote in his poem “Marmion.” — “Oh! What A Tangled Web We Weave When First We Practice To Deceive.”
And if you’re ever asked to fudge the facts when disseminating information to the media, remember Shakespeare’s line from “Hamlet.” — “To thine own self be true.”
It’s obvious to those who pay attention to the political scene, that Trump and his high-paid flacks don’t agree with the Scott and Shakespeare quotes, but think highly of the Machiavelli citation.
But President Trump, who denies saying things despite their being caught on TV news tapes, seems to favor Chico Marx’s line from the 1933 Marx Brother’s film “Duck soup” — “Who ya gonna believe, me or your own eyes?”
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