Marketing and the Presidency: Media Relations 101

The recent behavior of Sean Spicer, the new White House Press Secretary may seem strange to those outside of the world of “strategic communications.” But when you look at the last few days with a clinical eye, you can see that they are employing a pretty standard playbook for crisis communications.

Most media relations teams dealing with crisis situations spend time workshopping the potential issues and questions that will come up from the press. In the case of the White House press office under President Trump, it is really pretty easy. All they have to do is scan his Twitter account for the topics that will come up from the press the next day. In this way, President Trump is masterful in the way he is controlling the media. By leveraging Twitter, he is controlling the agenda – and can add new topics to divert attention from topics that he doesn’t want to cover. Unfortunately, he has some difficulty controlling himself when baited and often brings up sensitive issues (SNL skits, inaugural attendance numbers, etc.), bringing them into the public discussion.

Armed with the syllabus for the discussion, the White House press office simply needs to identify the tactics to employ when dealing with certain issues. Standard tactics include:

  1. “No comment”. This is the most common approach to dealing with difficult situations. It is often paired with a standard written statement about the topic at hand. The advantage of this approach is that it minimizes further damage that can happen when a spokesperson brings up something inadvertently.
  2. Diversion. If a topic is sensitive, you often hear a spokesperson say something like, “…the real issue we should be talking about is the conflict in Syria…”. Changing the topic to something else interesting is a standard approach.
  3. Denial. This is the trickiest one to pull off if there is even one iota of truth to the accusations. Denial should be quick and scripted – and shouldn’t offer any additional information beyond the bare minimum. Denial can backfire if the accusations are, in fact, true. Just ask Martha Stewart.
  4. Contrition. If you know you were wrong, and there is clear evidence, then the best thing to do is to admit wrongdoing quickly and ask to move on. A simple statement like this usually makes sense: “I was wrong to say (thing that was wrong), and I apologize to those who I disappointed. I’m looking forward to moving on so I can focus on making America great again…”.

The White House press office is just warming up and I think we should give them a Mulligan on their first press conference. A better approach to “attendance-gate” would have been diversion. A simple statement like: “We were thrilled to see so many people partake in the Inauguration of President Trump. While there may be some disagreement on the total number of attendees, we would prefer to focus on our mission of making America great again.”

The issue would be done.

I recommend that Mr. Spicer use the following rules:

  • If it is a salacious and untrue (or un-provable) Internet thing like “pee-gate”, the response should be “No comment”, or “I’m not going to glorify that with a comment.”
  • If it is a minor issue like the attendance at an event, use diversion and talk about something important.
  • You should avoid using denial at all costs – because if you deny something, it makes it much more difficult to use “no comment” later – people will assume you are guilty if you denied something in the past and now won’t.
  • If he did it and everyone knows it, admit it and move on.

And finally, someone needs to take away that Twitter account – it is making your job much harder.

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