The toughest job in PR

A public meltdown

Despite fears his temperament might start a war, the biggest conflict of President Trump's reign so far has been inside his own office. His team has been plagued with personality conflicts, resignations and embarrassing leaks. Anthony Scaramucci, who lasted only 10 days as the President's communications director, was supposed to find the source of the leaks but ended up just causing more embarrassment to his boss.

In a profanity-laced tirade to a journalist from the New Yorker, he called then-chief of staff Reince Priebus a "paranoid schizophrenic" and accused him of leaking to the press. This rant followed the departure of Sean Spicer, who had resigned as press secretary in protest at Scaramucci's appointment. All three of these men are now gone from the White House, followed by former chief strategist Steve Bannon, who departed as I was writing this blog and has re-joined his former employer Breitbart News. The White House casualty count is starting to resemble Game of Thrones!

Bad PR for PR

It is unusual for PR staffers of any description to take up so much space in the news pages. Many people don't understand how PR works and have never worked directly with a PR practitioner, so this is not a great introduction for them. A survey by the USC Center for Public Relations at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism found 73% of 900 PR respondents believe the White House communications team is influencing the public perception of PR.

That influence is not a positive one, according to the vast majority of the respondents. Nine out of ten said they would not work as President Trump's press secretary, while around five out of six (84%) agree the President's PR team "constantly change their views/statements". Other findings from the survey include:

  • 80% agree they "distort the truth"
  • 64% agree they "purposefully lie"
  • 36% agree they "do their best despite the circumstances"
  • 32% agree they "work hard to explain the administration's policies"
  • 16% agree they "are treated unfairly by the media"
  • 13% agree they "are strategic in their approach"
  • 12% agree they "act like PR professionals"

The survey did have a liberal skew, with 55% identifying themselves as liberal, 30% as moderate and 15% as conservative. However, even a majority of conservatives (54%) believed the White House communications team was impacting the profession.

Implications for New Zealand

The situation in New Zealand politics is quite different for the communications specialists operating behind the scenes. While 'Jacindamania' is making the early headlines in election season, who apart from seasoned political observers can name new Labour leader Jacinda Ardern's press secretary? The same goes for Prime Minister Bill English and his predecessor John Key.

Is the drama playing out in the White House an omen for what PR professionals in the New Zealand political scene can look forward to? Probably not, but there is somewhat of a trend towards greater scrutiny of those who advise our MPs, a New Zealand political insider says. One of the reasons the insider gives for the different styles of political coverage is the relative structures of our political system: the USA is a republic while we have a 'Westminster' democracy.

"Here the political model is much more integrated: you have the Government and within that you have a Cabinet of ministers. In the US you have the House of Representatives, which is separate from the White House, and you also have the Senate, which is a separate entity. Then you have got the executive outside of that. There is more of an opportunity to be independent, and an opportunity for more personality, within that structure."

Greater scrutiny

Although Parliament's PR operators are not likely to become household names any time soon, there have been moments when the curtain was lifted on their influence. One example was the "Hey Clint" incident, when Green Party MP Gareth Hughes asked his communications adviser Clint Smith a policy question mid-way through an interview with journalist Patrick Gower. Newshub (then 3 News) took the unusual step of broadcasting the candid moment, showing just how much politicians rely on the advice of those around them.

Our political insider says there is more scrutiny these days on "those that control the communications channel" in New Zealand politics. "There have been cases where the PR person has become the story, increasingly when media become frustrated with the way they are trying to control the message." Trying to stonewall the media can be counter-productive, if it makes them lash out at the messenger.

Some political staffers seem to think attack is the best form of defence. Recently Sean Plunket took to Twitter to defend his boss Gareth Morgan against criticism from pop singer and newspaper columnist Lizzy Marvelly, after The Opportunities Party's leader referred to Ardern as "lipstick on a pig". Prior to the 2014 general election, Internet-Mana Party communications boss Pam Corkery called reporters "puffed up little sh**s" during one heated moment. Perhaps it is no coincidence that both Corkery and Plunket were used to being in the spotlight.

Social media: the risks and rewards

Another factor political PR specialists must contend with is social media. Twitter played a big role in President Trump's electoral success, but it probably doesn't do much for the blood pressure of his communications team. The former host of The Apprentice is well-known for his online outbursts, but are they as spontaneous as people think? Our political insider says most political social media is heavily managed by communications teams, even if it appears to be off the cuff.

"The barriers between politicians and the audience have been reduced, and there are a lot of risks in that. The more communication channels you have, the more there is a need to have message management and the more transparency there is about how that message is being managed. If you speak off the cuff on social media you could get yourself in trouble or be taken out of context."

Social media has given politicians unprecedented direct access to the public, enabling them to reach millions of potential voters with no media filter. According to President Trump, this avoids the "Fake News" media distorting his message. But given the aforementioned poll results on the trustworthiness of his administration, would a bit of journalistic context be a bad thing? The lesson from his team's struggles is that regardless of how the media environment has changed, telling the truth is still the most essential part of good communications practice.

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