Tillerson, United, the SEC, Bozoma Saint John—Your Week (so far) in Messaging

What a couple of days of news for communicators and brands. It’s difficult to know where to start.

It’s hard to ignore the implications for messaging from the ousting of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson Monday. While a burning question is why did a secretary of state who allegedly called his boss a “f*^&#%$ moron!" during the summer stay in his job for this long, there can be little doubt from Tillerson’s brief press conference yesterday that he was ticked at the whole situation, including the ignominy of finding out about the specific day of his firing via Twitter. As communicators know, a face-to-face dismissal is the usual way to go.

In their quest for ratings and customers, the media and nightly comedy shows had a field day with the dismissal-by-tweet. On a serious note, you can bet State Department communicators and diplomats are working hard to explain this kind of messaging to U.S. allies.


Tillerson had a chance to rise above the fray yesterday by saying a few complimentary things about  President Trump. Some would call that leadership. Tillerson chose not to mention him. Another message sent. The lesson: If you’re so upset and you’re unconcerned about your next job, the best course of action is to say little or nothing.

It’s notable, too, that Tillerson’s deputy, undersecretary of public affairs Steve Goldstein (no relation to the PR News editorial director of the same name), also was ousted yesterday and for message-related reasons. It was Goldstein who was the source of early media reports that Tillerson learned of his ouster via tweet. In a statement, Goldstein added Tillerson had "every intention of remaining." That contradicted the White House’s version of the story. Earlier in the day the president said he and Tillerson had spoken of the latter’s departure for “a long time.” Goldstein’s ouster came a few hours after Tillerson’s.

By contrast, Goldstein provided a graceful message to CNN: "This has been an honor of a lifetime and I'm grateful to the secretary and the president for this opportunity. I wish everyone well and look forward to getting more rest and perhaps winning an indoor rowing competition.” The lesson here: When you’re relatively young and your next professional position is far from guaranteed, it’s best to be gracious and witty, even if it’s not totally how you feel.

Honesty usually is the best messaging policy, especially when you’re trying to dig yourself out of reputational hole. Evidence United’s mea culpa for the Monday-night flight from Houston to New York that took a small dog’s life. "We assume full responsibility for this tragedy and express our deepest condolences to the family and are committed to supporting them," United said in a statement. "We are thoroughly investigating what occurred to prevent this from ever happening again."

Bloody Wednesday

This afternoon, a pair of brands that have steadfastly refused to handle crises well provided evidence why such a strategy rarely works.

Earlier today Theranos founder/CEO Elizabeth Holmes was charged with conducting an "elaborate, years-long fraud…[to] allegedly deceive investors into believing that its key product—a portable blood analyzer—could conduct comprehensive blood tests from finger drops of blood," the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) said today in charging her and former company president Ramesh Balwani with fraud.

Holmes, a former Silicon Valley darling, allegedly fooled people and brands ranging from former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and George Shultz to Walgreens and the Pentagon.

After a Wall St Journal story said Theranos technology was untested and later that it was bogus, Holmes and the company finally began to talk, although with great limitations, to the media. In short, the messaging strategy was to ignore doubters in the press, hoping eventually they’d go away. That didn’t work. Needless to say, Holmes did not admit to wrongdoing yesterday.

And there’s Equifax, another example of a company whose messaging strategy was not to have one for a long time. You remember. Equifax waited until Sept. 7 to alert the public of a data breach it discovered much earlier in the summer. During those quiet months, though, its CIO, Jun Ying, unloaded his stock. That move brought him $950,000 and a gain of some $500,000, the U.S. attorney said yesterday as Ying was charged with insider trading. The SEC said Ying avoided more than $117,000 in losses with his trades.

Abraham Lincoln proved a message needn’t be long to be effective. The Gettysburg Address, one of the great speeches in American history, is fewer than 300 words. On Sunday, Uber’s chief brand officer, Bozoma Saint John, told a SXSW audience, “The number of African Americans in Silicon Valley is dismal…It’s not up to one company—it’s up to the entire industry to make sure that we are moving the conversation forward. Sometimes those walls of competition need to come down so we can move the entire industry forward…Why do I—as the black woman—have to fix that? There’s 50 of you, there’s one of me. Ya’ll fix it… Everybody else needs to make the noise—I want white men to make the noise.”

You have to hope the messages the SEC sent yesterday and Saint John conveyed Sunday will resonate.

Seth Arenstein is editor of PR News. Follow him at: @skarenstein