(And Important Lessons For PR Practitioners)
(Author’s Note: This is the fifth 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. In politics, the hackneyed expression, “history repeats” is true. This column highlights how presidents do not learn from their predecessors that one unthoughtful comment can come back to haunt them.)
When I was a little boy, if I was caught telling a lie or using foul language (which, of course, I never would do), my mother would wash out my mouth with soap. It taught me to think before I spoke. (Not being a soap fanatic, she used both Palmolive and Ivory, whichever was on sale.)
Too bad some of our presidents didn’t have the same experience. If they did, President Trump might have been cured of using foul language and not telling more than 20,000 lies during his presidency. Many have come back to haunt him, the most recent being his repeated fabrications that the coronavirus is under control.
The ridiculousness of Trump’s false statements about the coronavirus, even as deaths from Covid-19 are increasing, might have taught him a lesson that I’ve always told clients with PR crises: Tell the truth. It will eventually come out. In the president’s case, now that Mr. and Ms. Trump have been infected by the virus he doesn’t have to tell the truth about it. It is self evident.
Trump has made so many untruthful remarks about the coronavirus pandemic that it’s difficult to highlight one. But here are three:
- It’s a Democratic hoax, and,
- It only affects blue sates because of Democratic mismanagement, and
- We have it totally under control.
It wouldn’t surprise me to have him say, “Melania and I are doing the right thing by quarantining ourselves. Joe Biden is helping spread the virus by denying that he has it. And you know what? If he says that his supporters will believe it.
But Trump is not the only president to have uttered comments that have come back to haunt him.
- President Obama, talking about Islamic extremists, called ISIS and other groups the “JV team.” The fight against Islamic extremists has been going on since 2001.
- President Nixon told a group of newspaper editors that he is “not a crook.” He resigned on August 8, 1974.
- President Ford committed a major blunder in a debate with Jimmy Carter, insisting that “there is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe.” It emerged as a major presidential campaign issue, which many analysts say contributed to his defeat by Carter.
- In his 1988 campaign for the presidency, President George H.W. Bush said,” Read my lips: no new taxes.” During his first year in office he raised taxes; many analysts said that remark helped Clinton defeat Bush four years later.
- President Clinton demonstrated his proficiency in double talk by saying ‘It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is. If the—if he—if ‘is’ means is and never has been, that is not—that is one thing. If it means there is none, that was a completely true statement. … Now, if someone had asked me on that day, are you having any kind of sexual relations with Ms. Lewinsky, that is, asked me a question in the present tense, I would have said no. And it would have been completely true.”
But perhaps the biggest lie ever told by a president occurred in August 2016, when President Trump said, “I will never lie to you.”
Of course, not all lies are equal. Some are quickly forgotten and forgiven by voters. Others have played a part in defeating the re-election effort of a president.
The big question is, Will President Trump’s lies about the coronavirus and his illness affect the election? My opinion? It will.
- With less than a month to go before Election Day, it will take him off the campaign trail.
- It will prevent him from engaging with supporters in super-expensive “meet the president” events needed to raise money for a last minute advertising blitz.
- Whatever the president’s spokespersons say about his health will be taken with a grain of salt.
- Even if he recovers s quickly, his illness will be reported on for the remainder of the campaign, reinforcing comments by health scientists that the president’s dismissal of the pandemic was deliberately low-balled.
- Whatever comments he makes about the coronavirus for the remainder of the campaign will be taken at even less face value than before.
- While the president’s illness might not result in a tremendous number of voters switching form Trump to Biden, it certainly will gain the former vice-president some new voters.
- What ever hope the president had of changing the media coverage of the coronavirus to a topic more favorable to him has now magically disappeared, like the virus would, as he said.
(PR Lesson: The handling of the president’s illness has violated a basic tenet of a PR crisis: Don’t let bad news drip out. Get it out ASAP. The White House communications staff’s first mistake was not announcing that Hope Hicks had the virus. That news was made public by a Bloomberg News reporter. Then throughout Friday, when it was revealed that the president had the virus, news trickled out every few hours, without a medical staffer holding a comprehensive press briefing about his condition. The lack of transparency led to speculation by the media that the president’s condition might be worse than revealed, especially after it was announced that he was given an experimental drug treatment. The important thing for PR people to remember is that the less information made public during a PR crisis, the more speculation by the media that bad news is being held back.)
Throughout the coverage of the president’s illness, the fact that he and his closest White House advisors worked in close quarters without wearing a mask was always mentioned, followed by medical scientists saying how important social distancing and mask wearing is.
Ever since Joe Biden won the Democratic nomination, President Trump has been mocking him for wearing a mask, as he did during the debate last week. To appropriate from George and Ira Gershwin’s 1937 song “They All Laughed,” written for the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movie “Shall We Dance.” “Ho. Ho, Ho, Who has the last laugh now.”
As I write this on October 3, more than 7-million American have been infected with Covid-19, and we are fast approaching that 210,000 of those have died.
While I disagree with President Trump’s political philosophy, I never wished him or anyone to have ill health. But it must not be forgotten that just because he has been stricken with the disease that his constant disregarding the advice of leading medical scientists, his dissemination of false information about Covid-19, his encouragement of his followers to “liberate” states, his holding political rallies, despite scientists saying that they could be virus-spreaders, and his valuing the economy and stock market above the health of Americans makes the president an accomplice to the deaths of Americans.
In its October 3-4 edition, on page A5, the Wall Street Journal headlined a story, “Covid Moves to Campaign Center.” The article quoted Alex Conant, a Republican consultant and veteran of the Bush White House, saying that Biden “didn’t do anything wrong and shouldn’t act like he did. This is a mistake some candidates make after tragedy occurs to the opposition.”
If I was advising Biden, I would suggest that from today until Election Day that he keeps on explaining the policy differences between him and Trump on many issues, especially highlighting the coronavirus and health care issues.
And he should do so without pulling any punches. Because if President Trump recovers in time for him to campaign before Election Day, he certainly will resume his aggressive attacks on Biden, his family and his untrue description of the Democratic Party as a socialist one or worse.
When I was hired by a political PR firm, which was my first job in PR, the owner told me that I will be lied to and mislead by people I come in contact with. “All people lie,” he said. “Especially politicians.” Since then I have always double checked information provided to me by a client for accuracy before disseminating it and refused to issue false information to the media.
Facts that were made public today indicate that Trump has not only lied about the coronavirus but might be the spreader of the disease.
(PR Lesson and Health Advice: Being skeptical about client claims and checking for accuracy should be the norm for our business. Unfortunately, it isn’t. Misleading information and outright lies are too often disseminated by PR people. That’s why so many reporters distrust information from PR people. Act like a reporter and check the facts for yourself when President Trump makes comments about the status of the coronavirus, (or anything else.) Doing so might keep you healthy, unlike the president and so many of his cohorts.)
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 email@example.com.