Even Lysol Can’t Clean Up The President’s Words

As a reporter in Washington, you learn that when the president speaks, it’s news. It doesn’t necessarily matter what the president says, it’s still news, according to this rule. Sometimes an insignificant comment from the president gets more coverage than it should.

A corollary to this unwritten rule extends to companies and organizations in crisis: Even the smallest remark or action likely will get media coverage. And one rule that all PR pros know: Words and actions have consequences. Another PR maxim: When addressing the media, stay in your lane. Speak only about what you know. Don't riff or go off on tangents.

The Nightly Briefing

These rules are disregarded willy-nilly during the nightly mosh pit known as The White House Coronavirus Task Force briefings. Last night’s session was another case in point.

After abandoning exhortations of hydroxychloroquine, the president, who admits, “I’m not a doctor,” showed he still feels compelled to weigh in on medical issues.

Last night, for example, a reporter asked the president about something the esteemed diseases specialist, Dr. Anthony Fauci, said earlier in the day. In an interview with Time magazine, Fauci noted that the U.S. is not where it wants to be on testing. More tests and capacity are needed, Fauci said.

The president responded, "No, I don’t agree with him on that.  No, I think we’re doing a great job...testing.  I don’t agree.  If he said that, I don’t agree with him."

PR Takeaway: Speak with one voice during a health care crisis.

Heat and Light

Perhaps the largest swerve out of his lane last night occurred when the president riffed on a presentation from Bill Bryan, acting undersecretary of the science and technology directorate at the Department of Homeland Security.

During Bryan's presentation, he noted, “Our most striking observation to date is the powerful effect that solar light appears to have on killing the virus — both [on] surfaces and in the air.”

Bryan also spoke of learning that higher temperatures, humidity and certain disinfectants, such as bleach, are effective at killing the virus on surfaces and in indoor facilities.

Presidential Doctor

After Bryan left the podium, the president tried to extrapolate on what Bryan said. “So, supposing we hit the body with a tremendous — whether it’s ultraviolet or just very powerful light...it sounds interesting.”

He continued, “And then I see the disinfectant, where it knocks [the virus] out in a minute.  One minute.  And is there a way we can do something like that, by injection inside or almost a cleaning…it would be interesting to check that." In his defense, the president then said, "You’re going to have to use medical doctors with" this type of treatment. "But it sounds — it sounds interesting to me.”

Looking at the transcript this morning, one sees the president was noncommittal on using disinfectants on people. He said several times, though, it's worth checking. “I think it’s a great thing to look at,” the president added.

On the other hand, why was he even discussing these experiments on national television and in front of a room full of reporters?

A Very Stable Genius

Since words have consequences and the communicator in chief's words have even larger consequences, The Washington Post’s DC bureau chief Phil Rucker addressed the elephant in the briefing room:  “Respectfully, sir, you’re the president.  And people tuning into these briefings, they want to get information and guidance and want to know what to do…They’re not looking for a rumor.”

The president’s initial response was bad enough: “Hey, Phil.  I’m the president and you’re fake news…"

Then he continued, "It’s just a suggestion from a brilliant lab by a very, very smart, perhaps brilliant, man (Bill Bryan).  He’s talking about Sun. He’s talking about heat...so that’s it; that’s all I have.  I’m just here to present talent.  I’m here to present ideas, because we want ideas to get rid of this thing.  And if heat is good and if sunlight is good, that’s a great thing as far as I’m concerned.”

Perhaps realizing he'd misstepped, the president did not mention disinfectants.

The Corporate Response

This morning, RB of Britain, which makes Lysol and Dettol, sensibly issued a statement urging the public to avoid ingesting its disinfectant products.

It read in part, “As a global leader in health and hygiene products, we must be clear that under no circumstance should our disinfectant products be administered into the human body (through injection, ingestion or any other route).”

Several other organizations amplified the statement.

Also this morning, during a White House bill-signing ceremony, the president, in response to a reporter's question, said he was being sarcastic when he suggested injecting disinfectant could kill coronavirus. “I was asking a question sarcastically to reporters...just to see what would happen,” Trump said, according to The Washington Post.

A final PR maxim: Know your audience. There are 50,000+ Americans dead of coronavirus. Unemployment is at a record level. 90 percent of the country is quarantined. It's probably not a good time for sarcasm.

This article is part of PRNEWS' daily COVID-19 coverage, click here to see the latest updates.