Kenneth Kelly, Columnist
The communication professional’s task is twofold: communicate effectively and communicate truthfully. While textbooks often rhapsodize about other tasks, they are simply commentary on the first two. If you can’t communicate effectively, and you don’t tell the truth, there’s very little else that will matter.
In a perfect world, no one involved in communication would make a mistake. Unfortunately, this is not a perfect world. For those who are always blinded by camera lights, find a microphone constantly shoved in front of their face, and whose every word is minced and parsed, mistakes can, and do, happen.
Over the course of the last two weeks, communication/public relations students were taught a very valuable lesson, and it deals with “repentance.” Within the Church, we often say that the sin, while bad, is not really the issue, the ability to repent is. That is, a willingness to show contrition and to make amends where necessary. The same may be said of the communication profession: it isn’t the error that damns, it’s the lack of repentance, timely repentance that does.
A cardinal rule in political communication is to never, ever, make comparisons to Hitler or the Holocaust. Sean Spicer, President Trump’s press secretary, managed to invoke both in a single press briefing. Spicer is no neophyte to political communication, he was the former communication director for the RNC, but he did what we all have done: in the heat of an exchange, he spoke before he considered his words, and rather than back away from the comments, he dug the hole deeper and deeper.
To be fair, Spicer has a very difficult job, made even more difficult by defending a president who often mistakes fantasy for fact. Spicer comes into the briefing room to face a press he made a point of alienating at his very first press briefing, and finds himself in the unenviable position of trying to make the irrational rational. His boss also watches his performance before the press and regularly critiques him. He’s pressed on presidential absurdities, forced to defend what to a sane person is indefensible, gets a bit angry, a bit testy, a bit short and misspeaks. In the context of the U.S. missile strike in Syria, Spicer broke that cardinal rule of political communication.
During the briefing itself, Spicer was talking to a reporter, who told him Twitter was “blowing up” over what he said, and while he thanked her, he kept the shovel in his hand and just kept moving that dirt.
Several hours later, Spicer found himself in front of a camera from that purveyor of “fake news,” CNN, doing a live shot from outside the White House, and apologizing to a skeptical Wolf Blitzer in “The Situation Room.” The irony in all of this is that the very network Spicer repented in front of, is the very network he and the president regularly deride as “phony.”
Had he stopped during the briefing when the reporter called attention to the ruckus his comments had already caused on social media, mentally recalibrated, and apologized then, the issue would not have a required an in-person apology on a cable network. Had he come out immediately after the briefing, perhaps after looking at the transcript of what he had said, and apologized, he would have saved himself and the White House further embarrassment. Had he not made enemies out of the press so quickly and so regularly, he might have garnered a bit of sympathy from them, but none was to be had. His comments were blood in the water.
What can we learn?
When you misspeak, own it immediately and apologize. Do not make excuses, do not worry about embarrassment, do not worry about anything but your own personal integrity and credibility. Apologize, rapidly.
Next, if you know that your work entails giving a daily briefing, do not alienate the group. If there’s to be a war with the press, let someone in management wage it; your task is effective, honest communication and not to end up on a cable news channel. It’s difficult sometimes not to allow yourself to be goaded into an argument, and if on camera, it’s human nature to want to win the argument. More often the case is that we end up looking like bad-tempered, unprofessional fools.
Third, you cannot trade your own integrity in and assume that of your boss. Your own ethics and values must remain your own, and once compromised, always compromised. If your credibility is continually doubted, even when you tell the truth, no one will take you seriously.
Fourth, do not “double-down.” If we learned anything at all last week from United Airlines, it’s to never “double-down.” When everyone has a cell phone camera out, taking a video of police dragging a paying customer off a flight-regardless of the fine print-you will never win the public relations war. United, like Spicer, simply dug the hole deeper, and it took days for a responsible response from its CEO. We’ve all heard the adage that there’s no such thing as a microphone that’s off, arguably there’s also no such thing as a private email, especially when scandal is concerned. Own the “sin” and repent, quickly.
Finally, as a communication professional, never take the art of communication for granted. Words matter. Context matters. Effective communication is an art that must be practiced daily, and we learn through our mistakes-and that’s what important: to learn from the mistake, to grow from the mistake, and in the end, to allow the mistake to make you into a better communications professional.
We currently live in a world where communication is going to become more and more important. We have a president who seeks to reinvent facts in his own image, which makes the role of the communication professional more important, particularly in the realm of journalism. Whether we acknowledge it or not, we need communication professionals who have a sense of integrity, who are committed to the truth-the objective, factual truth, not the “truth” we might wish-and who can communicate that truth effectively.
We will make mistakes, but we must own them. Acknowledge them, “repent” of them and grow from them. But we must never, ever allow the truth to be compromised.