Trump, Comey, And The Need For One Spokesperson

by admin on May 15, 2017

President Trump

 

Subtitles

Do you want to influence the story? Then you need to talk to reporters.

There are always different versions of the truth regardless of our determination to honestly answer questions. Confusion over facts is how organizations are injured, and this is how senior staff lose their jobs.

When organizations speak, it is essential that they do it with one voice. Usually, that means one spokesperson.

Success With the Media

I wrote, “Success With the Media, Everything You Need to Survive Reporters and Your Organization” (available at Barnes and Noble and Amazon at https://amzn.com/151948965X) because I believe that organizations need to look inward to get better media results.

I use contents from the book for this article.

Author

Leonard Adam Sipes, Jr.

Thirty-five years of supervising award-winning media relations, radio and television; over fifty national and regional awards. Post-Master’s Certificate of Advanced Study, Johns Hopkins University.

Article

Sooner or later, you and your organization will experience a crisis, and media inquiries will be fast and furious. As your event unfolds, you will debate tactics and spokespeople.

As I write this article, the news is filled with references of an anticipated major shakeup in the White House as to disappointments over media coverage of the firing of FBI director James Comey.

The mood inside the White House is glum, with President Trump fuming over how the media is covering the firing of FBI Director James Comey and aides doing their best not to cross his path, several officials told Politico.

Several staffers thought it was a bad idea for him to schedule an interview with NBC News’ Lester Holt, which aired Thursday — he ended up contradicting the White House’s version of events regarding Comey’s firing, saying he was going to fire him regardless of recommendations by the attorney general and deputy attorney general — but a person close to Trump said he was “fixated” on the news, thought the communications team wasn’t doing its job, and he had to “take the situation into his own hands.” He isn’t alone in this thinking; son-in-law Jared Kushner also disapproves of how the press office is doing business, a person close to Trump told Politico, but other aides argue that the team wasn’t given any direction or a game plan when Comey’s firing was announced, The Week.

Regardless of your feelings about Trump, Comey or the firing, unfolding events clearly demonstrate that you and your organization need to have a crisis plan in place, and that there should be one spokesperson who has the executive’s ear who fully understands the circumstances “and” the message.

One Spokesperson

I spent thirty-five years of representing state and national criminal justice organizations including emergency management functions, and breaking news events in a major media market were a routine part of my job. Searching for and implementing the best possible media relations strategies demanded attention and resolution.

Every day started with the acknowledgment that all hell could break lose. Was I prepared? Did my support people understand their roles? Was I sufficiently briefed? Did I have immediate access to the people in charge regardless of the time or day?

Within any bureaucracy, you have multiple experts and executives who could speak to any topic that your organization faces. But during times of profoundly negative news, it becomes crucial to have only one spokesperson.  One spokesperson may be unrealistic in the White House, but multiple people speaking to the media is a surefire recipe for disaster. Media and public criticism over many and ever-changing messages regarding the Comey firing seemed clumsy and embarrassing.

An Example

Transpiring over months and involving national and international media, in one of the biggest stories I handled, an individual with a long history of sexual violence towards children was legally released from prison and was under our supervision in the community for less than one week when he sexually assaulted and murdered a nine-year-old child. I was the Director of Public Information for the Maryland Department of Public Safety.

No procedural rules, steps or laws were violated in the release or supervision of the offender. All personnel had operated within existing guidelines.

But the murder of a child creates widespread and understandable revulsion. Whether we like it or not, the media and public will assign responsibility for the incident.

There were a variety of agencies that had interacted with this offender and could share “blame.” There were local prosecutors who may have failed to pursue all cases in the past. There were treatment providers who could have found a “cure” for this individual. There were judges who could have imposed longer sentences to keep him in prison.

Some of the above decided to point fingers at my organization to deflect attention away from them. They claimed that the offender should have stayed longer or received extensive services while in prison. Many claimed that we should have made better preparations in the community for his return. They felt that we should have supervised the offender more closely during the five days of release.

Again, I emphasize that no laws were violated by my agency, and no rules and regulations were broken. His release from prison was consistent with the discharge procedures of offenders in virtually all prison systems in this country.

His community surveillance was equal to that of other supervision agencies. But others maintained that we could have done better in preparing this offender for his release. Much to the consternation of some within my agency, the critics were right “to some degree.” We could have done a better job.

We admitted as much when we recognized two years before the incident that the process of releasing offenders (especially sex offenders) needed improvement. The Secretary of the Department of Public Safety was in the process of implementing a plan.

So we “took a hit” even though we could have argued that no rules or laws were broken in the offender’s release. We could have argued that this was the current state of the art in the country. We could have maintained that the budget did not allow for such intensive programming before release.

We could have openly blamed others (the media would have loved the controversy this would have generated). But we did not.

We acknowledged that there were deficiencies within the system, and we were in the process of correcting them. And we expressed great (and genuine) revulsion over the event. Yes-even bureaucrats are allowed to express strong emotions regarding systems that contribute to the death of a child.

Major newspapers in the market and beyond offered exhaustive analyses of the incident. We answered every question. We did not blame others (although we made sure that reporters were aware of the “full” story on an off-the-record basis). We were polite. We tried to help the media at every turn.

The result was that all articles were extremely fair to our agency. All reports carefully illustrated that a multitude of agencies had contact with the criminal and that all played a part in the offender’s eventual release from prison. All mentioned my Department’s effort to improve the method of releasing and supervising such inmates.

It’s important to remember that these reporters (and their editorial boards) could have attacked my organization and its leadership. It would have been easy. But all chose not to.

A big reason why was that we had a consistent message through one spokesperson.

Why One Spokesperson?

As I said, there was an internal debate as to how much of this incident was the “fault” of my agency. There was a multitude of individuals within my Department holding different points of view. This fact alone should make it obvious to anyone that there should be one spokesperson.

Some agency heads (there were twelve representing law enforcement, corrections, and other agencies) wanted to talk to the media. They felt that they and their operations were blameless.

Multiple spokespeople offering a variety of opinions would have sent many messages to the media and the public.

Attorneys and technical specialists, agency heads and influential others had different points of view. But when you go to speak to the media, there should be only one point of view, thus one spokesperson.

Because of the gravity of the story, national news organizations expressed interest in covering it. I already conveyed to them the same information I offered to others. Then network news producers contacted several agency heads and asked them for on-camera interviews. Some were considering the offer.

This was a dangerous turn of events. If every agency head decided to speak, there would be a variety of opinions and facts placed before the media.

It does not matter how prepared they are. It does not matter if all four agency heads were in the same room at the same time with the same agreements as to what to say and how to say it; some would innocently contradict the other.

The media could create a wedge showing inconsistencies in the story and would begin to examine differences. The organization’s position could begin to unravel.

There are always different versions of the truth regardless of our determination to honestly answer questions. Confusion over facts is how organizations are injured, and this is how senior staff lose their jobs.

When organizations speak, it is essential that they do it with one voice. Usually, that means one spokesperson.

The Secretary decided that there would be one voice-mine.

One voice, one message. Mistakes are avoided. A clear and consistent message is offered. The story doesn’t last longer than it has to.

It takes planning and readiness. It requires a fully-briefed, experienced spokesperson with access to everything she needs.

If your organization is not ready, if you have not fully thought out what you will do, your leadership (and possibly the organization itself) will greatly suffer or die.

If the White House is trying to inspire confidence both at home and abroad, it failed miserably.

Don’t be these people. Prepare and agree as to who will handle your event.

Success With the Media

For more information on good organizational and media relations, see “Success With The Media: Everything You Need To Survive Reporters and Your Organization,” available from Barnes and Noble and Amazon at https://amzn.com/151948965X.  Your reviews are appreciated.

See my website at http://leonardsipes.com.

Contact me at [email protected].

Share

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: