White House Is Shaping Public Perceptions of PR, Practitioners Say—and That’s Not Good

Has anything been repeated more in conversations and articles about the new administration in Washington, D.C., than the president’s mode of communications, Twitter? Maybe #fakenews, but that’s also a communications issue, right? And for a while, earlier in the administration, it seemed the most-talked-about White House official besides the president was Sean Spicer, the chief communicator.

Speaking of White House communicators, they arguably are the country’s most high-profile PR practitioners. That was shown in a survey this morning from the USC Center for Public Relations at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. Its survey found 73% of 900 PR pros responding believe the White House communications team is influencing the public perception of PR. Roughly half the PR pros in the survey identified themselves as liberals, 30% said they were moderates and 15% identified themselves as conservatives. Regarding the question about White House communicators influencing public perception of PR, 77% of liberals agreed, as did 77% of moderates and 54% of conservatives.

shutterstock_656303014Digging deeper, 36% said the White House team does its best “despite the circumstances”; 16% said the media treat it “unfairly”; and 84% said the team “constantly change[s] its views/statements.” 80% said the team “distort[s] the truth.”

As PR pros know, a central tenet of communications is to sing from the same sheet of music when talking with the media. Well, that sound you heard on Father’s Day might have been PR pros scratching their heads. On the morning of June 16, a presidential tweet indicated Mr. Trump confirmed that the Justice Department was investigating him. The president was reacting to a June 14 story in the Washington Post that cited five anonymous sources saying the president was being investigated. The problem is that on June 18, Father’s Day, a lawyer representing the president, Jay Sekulow, did the rounds on the Sunday talk shows and said the president was not being investigated. Sekulow confused the situation even more when Fox News’ Chris Wallace called him on the apparent discrepancy, producing this heated back and forth.

Lawyers know how to communicate, exhibit B: Soon after the June 8 Senate hearing featuring the testimony of former FBI director James Comey—surely a discussion or two about that communications event was held in PR and journalism classes—the president’s personal attorney Marc Kasowitz held a hastily scheduled news briefing at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.

Preceding that session, Kasowitz released a letter to media reacting to the Comey testimony. The letter was done hastily, too, we must presume. One of the basics of written communications is, as a PR pro once urged attendees during a PR News Writing Boot Camp, “Proofread everything to death.” Alas, the Kasowitz missive contained several typos, grammar errors and, ouch, it misspelled the word president (predisent) in the first line. The surname of national intelligence director Dan Coats was misspelled, too.

The day after Kasowitz’s letter circulated, it was announced that Trump had added veteran lawyer John Dowd to his team of attorneys. To be clear, Dowd is a highly respected Washington insider, and would have been a terrific hire regardless. In addition, the content of the letter was controversial in some political circles. Still, Kasowitz, a New York attorney, did little to burnish his reputation inside the West Wing with the error-filled letter. We’ve all misspelled words and names. The takeaway is that you can’t assume spelling doesn’t count.

None of the above is meant to suggest that only communicators know how to communicate effectively. Certainly there are many examples of large brands botching communications in the past few months. Still, it’s important for communicators and anyone communicating to nail down the basics.

Follow Seth: @skarenstein