As a communications professional – and American citizen – I’ve been intrigued and sometimes gobsmacked as I watch the White House communications team perform their duties.
By Heather Claycomb,
Like many of you, I continually catch myself shaking my head and promising to focus on something other than US politics while being unable to wean myself off CNN. With my public relations hat on, I’m not so much watching The Don as watching to see how his team cleans up behind him.
And with White House press secretary Sean Spicer recently deploying the little-known media relations tactic of ‘hiding among the bushes to avoid questions’ (here’s a clue: they don’t teach that in Media Relations 101), we are seeing things unravelling quickly.
It’s easy for all of us to criticise Spicer – and don’t get me started on counsellor Kellyanne Conway – for his lack of professional integrity while praising him for his ability to keep a straight face as he delivers the President’s messages.
But before we quickly point a finger at “Spicey” and Kellyanne, let’s remember that great communications in any organisation starts with one person: the leader.
I think we can all agree that the US President’s reputation – and thus his country’s – is crumbling due in part to the messages his communications team is delivering as well as their delivery approach.
And this is happening because the leader is keeping his inner circle out of the loop. The communications team is trying to do their job with one – and sometimes two – hands tied behind their backs.
As a leader, you can avoid a similar reputational catastrophe by adopting a transparent, effective communication style and commitment to information flow.
And when you do so, you’ll never find your communications manager – or wider leadership team – hiding in the bushes and making a spectacle of your company when tough times hit.
So, if you’re a leader, here are four important communications lessons you can learn from the White House:
Tell your people first
Spicer retreated to the bushes because he didn’t know what was going on. As a leader, never put your staff in this position.
You never ever want your leadership team or wider staff hearing about a major company announcement in the media, from someone on the street or – God forbid – on Twitter.
Whether it’s good news such as signing a big contract or bad news such as planned redundancies, your leadership team and staff deserve to hear the news first. And your communications manager should be your right-hand person helping you make this happen.
You’ll find when staff are fully informed, they will become your best ambassadors – even when the news is negative. When a leader communicates effectively with transparency and integrity, staff will spread the company’s messages far and wide.
Arm them early with the right messages you want them to tell. This is a great way to engage staff, become widely known as a great employer and develop a strong company reputation.
Nurture your inner circle
When you hired your leadership team, including your communications advisor, you did so because they are experts worthy of your trust and confidence. Treat them that way.
If you’re getting ready to make a major move in the company, bring them in on the conversation early. This will go great lengths toward fostering unity among your inner circle of confidantes – your key managers. You’ll quickly become a harmonious, unified coalition ready to collectively tackle whatever changes come down the line.
When your leadership team knows with 100 percent surety you’ve got their back and see you entrusting them with confidential information, your organisation won’t leak. Plus, anyone – the media, staff, suppliers, customers – can ask questions of them when you aren’t around and they will be empowered to easily speak with confidence and certainty.
Important announcements need careful orchestration
When Trump fired FBI Director James Comey, we watched chaos ensue because the President didn’t seem to have (or follow) a plan for delivering this announcement. The first logical step in that plan, of course, should have been to inform his communications team and take their advice on next steps.
Communicating big news requires a careful strategy that outlines what you will say, to whom and when. If you don’t plan before you speak, you risk quickly losing control of your message and once you are on the back foot, recovery is nearly impossible.
When I’m working with clients on major news such as mergers, acquisitions, restructures or CEO changes, we’ll work for days – even weeks – on the communications strategy. And when it comes to the announcement day, we’ll literally plan down to the minute the timing around when and how we tell each audience.
And here’s a clue: tweeting the news is most often the very last step in the plan.
Be ready to work with media in good times and bad
Finally, one of the biggest lessons we can learn from President Trump and Spicer is this: when it comes to working with media be prepared to front up in both good times and bad.
As we’ve learned from Spicer’s antics, hiding in the bushes – literally and figuratively – only creates enemies, results in bad news stories and denigrates your organisation’s (and individual’s) credibility. Additionally, we’ve learned from the US President that animosity and visible irritation with journalists only serves to get their collective ire up.
So, what’s the best way to prepare for media scrutiny during tough times? Practise, practise, practise when times are good.
That means getting into a regular routine of telling your good news stories through the media, building relationship with journalists, seeking out media interviews and becoming comfortable at answering tricky questions.
Then, when negativity strikes – and it will – you’ll feel confident in handling anything the toughest journalist throws your way.
Heather Claycomb is the Director of HMC Communications, a full-service, multi-award winning public relations firm located in Hamilton.