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How to Do PR Wrong: The Trump White House Story

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It’s truly astonishing that two of the most prominent PR people of 2017, Sean Spicer and Sarah Huckabee Sanders, were also two of the worst (feel free to throw in their colleague Kellyanne Conway, who created a whole new type of spin).

The White House Press Secretary has one, primary job: Tell the truth to the people who elected you. While it’s true that Mr. Spicer and Ms. Sanders aren’t elected officials, they were appointed by the President of the United States, an elected official serving the United States of America. The people he appoints are chosen to serve the citizens of the U.S. – they are NOT employees of The Trump Organization whose mission is to spin information to make Trump look good. 

In one sense, the White House Press Secretary is like any other PR person – like you or me. As the P and R in “public relations” state, it’s our job to build a Relationship with the Public (see what I did there, wink wink). For a regular PR person, the public you’re building a relationship with could be journalists, your client’s current customers, prospective customers, current investors or other key stakeholders.

The White House should view the public as a singular entity – the citizens of the United States – and the relationship with the public, as with any good relationship, should be built on trust.

Let’s take a quick look at a few key events that caused the White House, and their PR leaders, to lose the trust of the American people:

Sean Spicer’s Very First Post-Inauguration Press Briefing

Mr. Spicer set the tone of the Trump White House early on, with an overly rehearsed, theatrical remark the day after President Trump’s inauguration. Despite clear, convincing, photographic evidence to the contrary, President Trump declared that more people attended his inauguration than President Obama’s. More than anyone ever, in fact, in the history of Presidential inaugurations.

Spicer ignored the evidence and steamrolled straight ahead: “This was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration. Period,” a brash and unconvincing Mr. Spicer declared from the White House podium.

Mr. Spicer’s initial foray into Press Secretary-ing defined the term “making a mountain out of a molehill” and the bulldog manner in which he delivered his remarks only added to the circus.

A quick tip for PR pros: If you want people to take you seriously, tell the truth and don’t act like a jackass.

Kellyanne Conway Invents a Brand-New Type of Spin

The inauguration kerfuffle didn’t end with Mr. Spicer. The very next day, Trump Senior Adviser Kellyanne Conway showed that the White House was playing poker with an Uno deck by creating a whole new type of spin. She claimed that President Trump and Mr. Spicer weren’t lying, they were using “alternative facts”:

“You’re saying it’s a falsehood,” she said to NBC’s Chuck Todd. “They’re giving – Sean Spicer, our press secretary gave – alternative facts.”

Todd responded: “Alternative facts aren’t facts, they’re falsehoods.”

They are lies. They are fallacies. They are the perpetuation of a myth. And all they do is kill your credibility.

A quick reminder: The truth is your friend. Spin is one thing, but too much spin is a big mistake. Creating an “alternative fact” will get you in trouble every time.

Sarah Huckabee Sanders Defends the “Pocahontas” Slur

President Trump has never been afraid to roll up his sleeves and get down in the dirt to take a shot at his detractors. A frequent tactic is to create nicknames. Crooked Hillary. Lyin’ Ted Cruz. Little Rocket Man (that one’s actually kind of funny). Cryin’ Chuck Schumer. Pocahontas.

That last nickname, however, is not like the others.

President Trump took to calling U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren, who he claims lies about her Native American heritage, “Pocahontas” during the run-up to the 2016 election. He used the derogatory term again in November during an event held at the White House to honor the Native American “code talkers” of World War II … with a group of Native Americans standing right next to him.

Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye called the remarks “unfortunate” and Jefferson Keel, President of the National Congress of American Indians, referred to Pocahontas as “a hero to her people” and asked that President Trump “refrain from using her name in a way that denigrates her legacy.” Even so, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who took over as Press Secretary after Mr. Spicer resigned, said that taking the comments as a racial slur was a “ridiculous response”.

Hint: Sometimes, it’s better to just apologize than be combative.

Shithole vs Shithouse, Does It Even Matter?

All this leads us to where we are now, with President Trump making more racially insensitive, if not outright racist remarks, leaving his beleaguered Press Secretary to defend him to the public. In a meeting with congressional lawmakers, President Trump allegedly uttered that the United States had too many immigrants from “shithole countries”.

His comments quickly made the rounds, with legislators from both sides of the aisle confirming the statement. But amazingly, overnight, some lawmakers forgot what happened, then re-remembered it, but differently.

Their eyewitness accounts changed. Suddenly they said the President referred to those countries as “shithouse countries” because they lack indoor plumbing and their people must go outside to use the bathroom.

Whether he used the word “shithole” or “shithouse” is beside the point. The point is that the President of the United States shouldn’t be using this type of language to refer to other countries, period.

Ms. Sanders did absolutely nothing to calm the situation: “The President hasn’t said he didn’t use strong language, and this is an important issue, he’s passionate about it, he’s not going to apologize for trying to fix our immigration system.”

Ah yes, the classic deflection. Here’s an important PR lesson: When you make a mistake, don’t avoid it by changing the subject or quibbling over words – own it and apologize for it. That’s not only the right thing to do, it’s also the best way to make it go away. 

Perpetuating the “Fake News” Storyline

Analysts and pundits have written at length about the drawbacks of perpetuating the “Fake News” narrative and the White House’s continued insistence that reporting by the mainstream media is false. I won’t repeat what they’ve eloquently written about time and time again. But, I will say:

Here’s the quickest and most important PR lesson from this: It’s best not to call the people who write about you on a daily basis “liars,” “frauds” and “fake”. That won’t engender goodwill toward your organization. Even if you disagree with their reporting, most media members are hardworking journalists trying to get the story right – they should be treated with respect. 

PR pros can learn quite a few lessons from the current White House communications team. And all too often, they’re lessons on how to do PR poorly.

This can’t be said often enough: The idea behind public relations is to build a relationship with your audience, and the foundation of that relationship must always be trust.

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