Gerard Braud, CSP, Fellow IEC
Talking about crisis communications, media relations and the Trump White House is difficult. Too many people want to look at issues only through the politics of whether they love or hate the Trumps. To appreciate this article and to comment on it, you cannot and must not let your love or hate of the Trumps enter your mind. My observations are about public relations and are neither left, right, nor center. They are PR. Are we good? If you agree, then read on…
If you were on Melania Trump’s team and saw her wearing her Zara designer jacket with the inscription, “I really don’t care. Do u?” while boarding her plane after visiting a controversial refugee center where children are being relocated and separated from their migrant parents, what would your PR instincts tell you to do? Keep in mind, that this could happen with one of your executives or their spouses.
Here are three public relations steps you can take:
1) Explain the optics and offer a Plan B.
The Trump White House is unique in that they either are oblivious to optics or they are comfortable enough with the level of support they receive from their base that they dismiss negative optics. But in this case, my suggested approach in any event with the potential for bad optics is for you to directly approach your leader, in this case, the First Lady (but in your case it could be an executive or a family member of one of your executives) and explain the consequences of their action.
The conversation might be, “Mrs. Trump, we just noticed that on your jacket are written the words, ‘I really don’t care.’ Mrs. Trump, you specifically made this trip to show you care. The writing on your jacket could lead to horrible consequences and criticism if the media, or the public, photograph you wearing that. Do you have another jacket that you can put on or should we stop and purchase one for you?”
When I was a journalist, I was a part of many political motorcades that stopped so the handlers could buy clothing between public appearances. For example, a candidate wearing a coat and tie to speak to a luncheon of CEOs may fail to see the optics of him wearing the same coat and tie to his 3 p.m. meeting with pig farmers on a farm.
Keep in mind, Mrs. Trump was also criticized for wearing high heels when leaving the White House to visit Texas flood victims last year. I saw it happen live and immediately commented on it to my wife. Later, Mrs. Trump showed up in tennis shoes. Ultimately, the staff must be ready to travel with a variety of wardrobe options in the event the executive has failed to think things through.
To be an expert in crisis management and communications, you must pride yourself on preventing the crisis, rather than priding yourself on your response after the crisis has unfolded.
2) Have the nerve to speak up if no one else will.
Often team members are afraid to speak up or are afraid of getting fired if they do speak up. In my opinion, you are not doing your job and you should be fired if you do not speak up. Your job should be to protect the reputation of your brand at all times, even if your brand is technically the image of the First Lady.
If you refuse to speak up, you are weak and do not deserve the job. Seats at the table are not offered to the weak. If you do speak up and get fired, you should celebrate the opportunity to move on and work in a place where your expert opinion is respected, rather than being miserably crushed like a bug.
3) Be willing to quit your job if the executive dismisses your suggestion.
We do not know if anyone on the First Lady’s team attempted to intervene. I’m sure there are a lot of layers of protocol before someone can successfully interject and stop a PR disaster from unfolding. But, if it is your job to speak up, and if you did speak up, and if you were rejected and sent away, then by all means… quit your job.
I’m constantly amazed by PR people who tell me their bosses will not listen to them. Routinely PR people tell me about how their bosses will not allow them to do their jobs properly. Really? You should quit.
The bonus tip:
And even though I promised three tips, here is a bonus fourth tip.
After the event has gone badly and you have to defend your executive, for goodness sake, learn to parse your words. Mrs. Trump’s communications director, Stephanie Grisham issued a statement that read, “It’s a jacket. There was no hidden message.” Technically, it was a jacket. Technically, the words on the jacket constituted a message, as all words do. And technically, the message wasn’t hidden, but damn if it didn’t appear to be subliminal or oblivious to optics. If you are in charge of communications for the wife of one of the most powerful people on the planet, I would hope you could be a better wordsmith.
In conclusion, some powerful people are oblivious to optics; some don’t care. If you are in the communications profession, your entire purpose should be to care. If you keep getting rejected when you attempt to do what you know is professionally correct, it is the equivalent of asking someone if they would like fries and a large drink with that news release. You are little more than the person taking orders at a fast food restaurant… and your worth is about equal to the $8 an hour wage the burger employee makes.
Stand up. Be strong. Do your job… and do it well.