PR Lessons From the Trump Letter and the Chrysler-UAW Case

Mistakes of all sizes happen. We know that. PR pros often are called in after those mistakes occur. They usually attempt to mollify things. Sometimes they goof and fan the flames. At times, communicators can do very little to make things better.

Mistake By The Lake

Look at what happened last week and this week in Michigan. On July 27 a federal indictment was handed down alleging officials of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) and the United Auto Workers (UAW) redirected millions of dollars earmarked for employee training into their pockets, Automotive News reports.

With the money, the indictment alleges, brand and union officials paid off mortgages and at least one relative’s student loan (that’s nice, although probably illegal).

shutterstock_335614826The officials, former FCA labor relations chief Alphons Iacobelli and UAW VP General Holiefield (now deceased), along with Holiefield’s widow, Monica Morgan, also allegedly used the ill-gotten funds on far more delicious things. These include first-class airline tickets, a pair of $37,500 solid-gold pens from Mont Blanc and, hey, since we’re talking about car guys, a Ferrari 458 Spider, price tag: $350,000.

Need we mention a $96,000 outdoor swimming pool as well as an outdoor kitchen and spa added to the Iacobelli manse? How about $200,000 in jewelry and furniture Holiefield and Morgan allegedly charged? No, we’ll be judicious and not mention any of that.

The money siphoning and resulting lovely purchases allegedly occurred from 2009-2014.

You have to love this part, unless you are an FCA employee, UAW member, a communicator or attorney working for either organization: To make sure union leaders wouldn’t negotiate employee contracts too vigorously, FCA issued them credit cards hoping they’d be “fat, dumb and happy,” the indictment says.

By the way, Iacobelli and Holiefield “led contract negotiations between the company and the union in 2011,” Automotive News says. Hold that thought.

Morgan pleaded not guilty Monday; Iacobelli Tuesday. Both were released on separate $10,000 bonds and had to surrender their passports.

The Good News

On the plus side, at least in terms of crisis management, FCA and UAW issued statements distancing themselves from the bad actors and their behavior. The statements also mention steps taken to correct the problems. Good, so far.

A crucial part of the indictment is that it mentions “at least eight unnamed people, while vaguely mentioning” others, Automotive News writes. The implication being, of course, is that more shoes are yet to drop.

At the least you have to wonder about the culpability of other officials and board members at FCA and UAW. Did they know about this behavior? Participate in it? Cover it up? Can a few people displace millions of dollars without others knowing about it? The answers will come out eventually.

While we’re waiting, though, we can indulge in a favorite pastime: Second-guessing crisis management tactics. UAW chief Dennis Williams, who took office in 2015, after the alleged scandal, wrote a letter to employees today saying Iacobelli and Holiefield could not have influenced UAW-FCA negotiations. “No matter what anyone says, it was not possible,” he wrote.

Hmm, as noted above, Automotive News says Iacobelli and Holiefield led negotiations. Is it possible they didn’t influence those negotiations? It’s possible that what Williams wrote is correct. For his sake, you have to hope so.

“Best practices, aka conventional wisdom, in crisis communications says you don’t make statements that you are unable to confirm or back support,” CommCore Consulting Group president/CEO Andy Gilman, a veteran DC insider, says. “When asked a question that you can’t answer factually just say, ‘Let me check and get back to you. What’s your deadline?’”

As Gilman notes, “We, unfortunately, are not operating in conventional times.  You also have a press corps that is using microscopes to check and double-check each statement.  My advice: Stick to convention.”

This brings us to a corollary about a story that broke last evening. Perhaps you’ve heard of it.

The Communicator in Chief

The Washington Post alleges President Trump assumed the role of communicator last month and it had nothing to do with tweeting. The incident in question has the president allegedly dictating a statement that was issued from the camp of his son, Donald Trump Jr., to the NY Times in July.

The newspaper was set to release emails between Trump Jr. and publicist Rob Goldstone confirming the existence of a June 2016 meeting between the president’s son, other campaign officials and several Russians, who were eager to provide unsavory information about candidate Hillary Clinton. The statement to the Times that the president allegedly dictated attempts to explain away the meeting as one of little importance to the campaign.

As you likely know, rather than let the Times release his emails, Trump Jr. released them first. At the time, the Trump Jr. emails and the statement released with them were all anyone could take about in D.C. We’ll refrain from commenting on the wisdom of this.

We’ll also refrain from discussing whether the statement the president allegedly composed* was accurate or “misleading,” as the Post charges.

The largest point for PR pros seems to be that presidential attorney Jay Sekulow made the rounds on three news/talk shows a few days after the statement was released saying emphatically that the president had not written it. You can see Sekulow on video saying this to CNN.

It’s unclear where the truth is in the UAW-Chrysler and Trump incidents. In both cases, principal actors seem to be practicing risky tactics. One thing is certain: As Gilman says, someone in the press will continue to watch closely.

* Update, Aug. 1, 4pm ET: This afternoon the White House confirmed the president, as a concerned father, weighed in on the statement. It stopped short of saying he “dictated” it, however.

The questions now seem to be: Did Sekulow ask the president about the statement? If so, what did the president tell him? It’s possible, although unlikely, that Sekulow forgot what he was told or was confused about it.  At best, it shows a lack of coordination between the president and those who speak on his behalf. It’s far from the first time that’s happened. At worst, it appears that either the president or his lawyer told an untruth. Neither scenario bodes well for White House communicators.

Follow Seth at: @skarenstein