Donald Trump, Public Relations, Charlottesville, And When to Shut Up
I have thirty-five years of media relations for complex organizations. During that time, there were hundreds of incidents where I issued reassuring statements about difficult topics, without equivocation.
But getting there involved heated arguments and discussions with powerful insiders who insisted that the “truth” be told.
Donald Trump and Charlottesville
Mr. President, you don’t have to be right on the facts “as you see them.”
The public simply needs a sense of reassurance from their President during difficult times. They need their president to set the proper moral tone.
Neo-Nazi’s, the KKK and white supremacists are scumbags; the lowest form of humanity. Anyone judging groups as a whole need to be sterilized. That’s what you needed to say, without equivocation.
You “may” be right that there were decent, law-abiding people there in Charlottesville who wanted to protect a statue of Robert E. Lee. But who cares? Was that the point?
You are probably correct that the violence came from both sides. The media websites I follow say as much. Hell, we’re not even sure of many of the facts that day per dozens of media sources.
Even the media is conflicted as to what happened that day and who is to blame, Associated Press.
We are still unsure as to who the participants were and the roles they played, Neiman Lab.
But, once again, is that the point?
A Fly on the Wall
I would love to be a fly on the wall as you and your aids discussed what to say. You had two opportunities to address the nation.
Yep, you didn’t want to be the politically correct President. You wanted to tell the truth “as you saw it.” You wanted to defend historical monuments.
You tried to place the situation into context that there are endless additional symbols of racism. You asked if we are going to pull down the Washington and Jefferson memorials on the basis that they were slaveholders.
In your mind, you were a truth-teller.
Let me suggest something to you Mr. President. If you continue your form of “truth-telling,” you will be a one-term president. You ran into a buzz-saw of negativity and it just didn’t have to be that way.
All you had to do is to reassure the nation that neo-Nazi’s, the KKK and white supremacists are scum, “without” clarification.
You need to understand the difference between being correct (as you view correctness) and the sincerity the nation needs to hear.
Being right (as you and your aids view it) and saying what the public needs to hear are two different things. Please understand that before your presidency becomes impossible to manage.
Example: Sex Offender Murders a Child
I represented the Maryland Department of Public Safety (a combined law enforcement and corrections organization with twelve agencies plus numerous boards and commissions) for fourteen years as the Director of Public Information.
A sex offender was released from prison and within a week, he sexually abused and murdered a child. The organizations within the department who dealt with the offender did nothing wrong; they adhered to the principals of law and national standards.
When asked by agency heads about my intention to defend them, I suggested that the facts of the case were irrelevant.
The public was horrified, and they didn’t want to hear excuses. They didn’t want to hear justifications. They wanted a thorough examination of the issues and a pledge that we would do everything possible to make sure this didn’t happen again.
My public response was that we were horrified by the event, and that we were conducting an exhaustive examination. We pledged to do better.
It’s called, “taking a hit;” where the facts were not nearly as important as recognizing what the public wants.
Some agency heads thought that my statements were throwing them under the bus; they wanted a defense, they did nothing wrong. “Leonard, when the hell are you going to tell the truth,” they said.
I stated that sometimes, the facts of the case were less important than a statement indicating our revulsion and a pledge to do better.
We answered hundreds of media questions openly and honestly. The collective media (regional, national and international) gave us fair coverage “because” we didn’t go on the defensive.
We received impartial reporting because we understood that sometimes, the facts simply don’t matter.
The PR Business and Taking a Hit
“Taking a hit,” means not getting flustered over the current negative event.
“Taking a hit,” means not giving in to the Smoke Blowers, staff members who can’t see things clearly.
“Taking a hit” means that you have the ability not to make a negative situation any worse than what it has to be.
Those of us who represent cumbersome agencies take painful pride in our ability to “take a hit.” We recognize that negative news, like the sunrise, will happen. We know how to “take a hit” because we understand that our objective is to win the war, not the battle.
Battles are an everyday part of our lives. Negative news happens. I’ve seen establishments put themselves at risk because they overreact to news or they do not react at all or they take forever to craft a statement or they say the wrong things.
Too many top executives feel that their honor or performance has been questioned and will not allow public affairs professionals to put out the fire. They make things much worse than they have to be and then wonder why they are the recipients of widespread negative news coverage.
“Taking a hit” often means that we acknowledge the issue at hand, sincerely pledge to do better, and offer the reassurances the public seeks.
Donald Trump and the rest of us need to understand when to offer complex explanations, and when to shut up.
Leonard Adam Sipes, Jr. – Thirty-five years of supervising award-winning media relations, radio and television; over fifty national and regional awards. Interviewed multiple times by every national news outlet. Post-Master’s Certificate of Advanced Study, Johns Hopkins University.
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