Early in my career, I learned public relations professionals should dutifully manage relationships with the media. Above all, I was instructed to guard my credibility; without it, I’d be of no use to my employer or the causes I represent. Having spent the last few weeks watching President Trump’s administration interact with the press, it’s tempting to consider whether the rules of professional decorum between journalists and the subjects they cover still apply. Further, is credibility a relic of the past?
Contrary to current events, credibility and decorum are as important today as they’ve always been.
During his initial address to White House correspondents on Saturday, January 21, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer insisted that more people attended Donald Trump’s inauguration than any inauguration in history. Aerial scans of the crowd suggested otherwise. Additionally, the Washington area transit authority noted lower ridership for President Trump’s inauguration than President Barack Obama’s in 2009 and President George W. Bush’s in 2005. Following claims of record turnout in 2017, many in the media questioned the administration’s relationship with the truth.
Let’s be clear, Spicer did more than challenge something as insignificant as crowd size; he seemed to chastise the correspondents before abruptly leaving the podium without entertaining a single question. Like the rest of us, former press secretaries Jay Carney and Ari Fleischer seemed puzzled by Spicer’s behavior. Fleischer, President George W. Bush’s one-time press secretary, referred to Spicer’s comments as a “statement you’re told to make by the President. And you know the President is watching.”
When pressed on why President Trump presumably ordered Spicer to quibble about a matter that could be easily disproved, White House Counselor Kellyanne Conway told MSNBC’s Chuck Todd that Spicer gave “alternative facts.” I’m a proponent of pivoting during media interviews but the alternative facts line was rich.
Just a few weeks after Conway’s now infamous “alternative facts” line, she referred to a terrorist attack in Bowling Green, Kentucky that never actually happened. When challenged over the false claim, Conway stated it was a simple mistake. She later suggested persons making an issue out of the flub were “haters.” However, it was quickly discovered that she’d referred to the Bowling Green massacre on two separate occasions. Spicer too referred to a non-existent terror attack — this time in Atlanta – when defending President Trump’s proposed travel ban targeting seven Muslim-majority countries.
During the next few briefings, Spicer’s combative and argumentative tone continued. So much so that his interactions with the press were lambasted in a widely-viewed skit by Melissa McCarthy on NBC’s Saturday Night Live (SNL).
I don’t envy Spicer; he’s in a high stakes position, and has yet to find his stride with reporters or the new Administration. If Spicer were the only member of Trump’s team with bizarre interactions with the press, perhaps I wouldn’t spend my time writing this post.
Yet, President Trump himself spent the presidential campaign characterizing the media as dishonest and untrustworthy. That trend has continued into his presidency with Trump declaring notable outlets such as CNN and the New York Times “fake news.” White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon went as far as to declare the media the “opposition party.”
The fourth estate has never been described in such way.
It bears noting that I’m not an apologist for the media. At times, I’ve been critical of some reporters and outlets for failing to provide context or playing into harmful narratives about marginalized communities. Still, attacking the media writ large as dishonest is patently false, if not strategic. With each attack, President Trump’s administration alienates his base from sound reporting, while positioning themselves as the sole arbiters of truth.
Sooner or later, these skirmishes will catch up with the administration. And it may happen much faster than any of us expect. Some outlets have grown so concerned about Conway’s credibility that they considered not booking her on some shows. The White House reportedly pitched Conway as a potential guest on CNN’s State of the Union show on Sunday, February 5, but CNN declined. Conway later took to Twitter to say that she declined the request due to familial obligations. CNN’s communications department then tweeted that they, in fact, declined the offer to have Conway on the show, going on to state, “those are the facts.” Conway’s continued falsehoods are embarrassing, and counter to the level of decorum we as citizens expect in her position. Moreover, to serve in a presidential administration, yet face the possibility of being unable to represent its position in the media due to credibility concerns is disturbing.
Even if the present environment suggests otherwise, it’s imperative to maintain credibility and extend professional courtesy when interacting with journalists, producers and radio and TV hosts. Further, public relations professionals and politicos should strive to make news, not become it; a principle this White House team has yet to grasp.
Jennifer R. Farmer is a strategic communicator and author of Extraordinary PR, Ordinary Budget. She’s based in Washington, D.C. Follow her on Twitter @Farmer8J or on Facebook at Facebook.com/Tips4ExtraordinaryPR