During my long PR career, I have had clients that have experienced PR crises nationally and also internationally, when I traveled as a media consultant worldwide with high-ranking government officials.
Also during my long PR career, I have always advised practitioners to pay close attention to the happenings on the political scene, because public relations tactics are practiced there that are not in any PR texts or agency “how to” instruction guides.
But the differences of how the twice impeached former President Trump and Andrew Cuomo, Governor of New York State, handled their PR crises deserves its own chapter. Coincidentally, their major crises were about the same issue – their treatment of women.
Trump was confrontational to reporters when they asked an obvious question about a PR crisis that applied to him. He often would not answer the question, sometime abruptly ended the q and a session and would leave the room, would attempt to revoke the reporter’s White House press credentials and labeled any accusation “False News.” The result was that the confrontations between Trump and the media, except for his far right supporters, was a reoccurring saga during his presidency.
Cuomo’s initial response, in my opinion, was deficient. He denied the accusations and then said he would appoint an investigator to look into the charges. As with any entity appointing its own investigators to examine wrong-doings this was a major error, which he acknowledged when turning the investigation over to New York’s attorney-general, not an appointee of his.
After only issuing written statement for several days, on March 3, Cuomo finally did something correct. He held a press conference, apologized to the women who accused him of sexually harassing them and to the citizens of New York. Importantly, he then held a q and a session with reporters and answered questions without them being screened.
During a PR crisis, I have always advised clients not to rush statements until the facts behind the situation are clearer because doing so ultimately leads to misinformation being disseminated. (Instead, I tell clients to say something like, “We’re looking into the situation and will get back to you once we have more details.”) Cuomo took that tact telling a reporter that except to apologize to anyone who felt harassed by his actions he’ll wait until the attorney-general completes her investigation before making other comments regarding the complaints against him.
Whether Cuomo’s mea culpa will save his job remains to be seen. But unlike Trump, who insisted I don’t have to apologize for anything because I never did anything wrong, at least Cuomo was able to admit that he is not infallible.
The great majority of people in our business will never have to deal with a PR crisis involving government officials. But whether you’re hawking “the best butter” or working on an account for a Fortune 500 company a crisis might occur.
Below are some important take-a-ways from the political scene that young PR people new to the crisis scene should heed when dealing with one. Ignoring them will make the crisis worse:
- Tell the truth: Trump administration cohorts originally denying contacts with Russians, and Trump’s accusatory unproved tweets, led to Congressional investigating committees and continuing negative news coverage.
- Limit replies to media stories: Attacking media coverage led to the media defending its coverage, resulting in additional stories rehashing the allegations.
- Avoid the drip-by-drip method: After much denying contacts with Russians, Trump associates admitted, one-by-one, that they had contacts with the Russians. Being truthful from the beginning would have avoided the appearance of a cover-up.
- Don’t have a press spokesperson who is antagonistic when asked media questions he/she doesn’t like: Instead of calmly disagreeing, Trump press secretaries too often attacked questioners for having an “agenda.” Personally attacking a reporter should be avoided. It accomplishes nothing and leads to a “you-against-me” atmosphere..
- Limit exposure to the media: If you represent a company or individual in a PR crises limit media exposure to only when new and relevant information must be made public. Having frequent press conferences without new info to accommodate the press only results in the “old” negative news being rehashed, resulting in unkind stories. Trump continually held impromptu press questions with reporters on his way to boarding Marine One, often leading to “he said, she said” confrontations.
- It’s the story that matters: Don’t expect soft ball questions from media buddies during a PR crisis despite having a past cordial relationship with them. Anticipate the questions and have prepared answers.
- It’s the story that matters: Even publications that usually are in your client’s corner will run detailed negative stories during a media crisis. Don’t be pressured by your client to say that the information is inaccurate, unless you are willing to provide factual information backing up your claim.
- It’s the venue that matters: Placing a CEO on friendly media to sugar coat a crises is tantamount to speaking to the choir. What is said is either discarded or scoffed at by neutral media.
- Don’t Freelance Answers: Instead of giving incorrect information, which will led to additional negative questions and hurt the creditability of the spokesperson, it’s okay to tell a reporter, I’ll check on it and get back to you.
What young PR people should realize is that the above should apply to all engagements with the media, PR crisis or not.
Trump, as a candidate and president and his spokespersons have provided a living example of how to create a PR crisis and then make it worse day-by-day. For people in communications schools and those already in our business, paying close attention to the drama on the political scene should be required reading and watching. All the lecturing of PR professors and reading every text book on media crises can’t provide a better learning tool of what not to do.
I also am a firm believer that after a major PR crisis occurs an entity or individual should hold a press conference, not necessarily during the first day or two after the news breaks but definitely within the week, when circumstances might be clearer. It might not deter negative media coverage from continuing, but at the minimum it will dispel the appearance of a cover-up and has the possibility of gaining a modicum of favorable coverage if the spokesperson answers all the questions.
One of the most asked question by a client during a PR crisis is how can you stop the negative overage? Of course, any honest PR advisor would tell clients that getting the press to stop negative coverage is impossible until the situation is resolved. And even then the crisis becomes part of the client’s DNA and can be revived as examples during others’ PR crises. “Look forward” is what I would tell clients. “Don’t make excuses. Explain why the problem occurred and how you are going to fix it. And when it’s fixed, make a big deal about what you did.”
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 or firstname.lastname@example.org.