The White House Places Its Bet on a No-Bad-News Approach

If real life were like the movies, then when the President of the United States and the Vice President were exposed to a potentially deadly virus, the script would have the White House press secretary addressing that story in an opening statement during a press conference.

Life, though, isn't like the movies. Those stories weren't addressed during press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany’s Friday’s White House press briefing. Not a word about them in her opening statement.

Home of the Brave

Instead, McEnany opened with an 89-word tribute to the brave men and women who served in WWII, as it was the 75th anniversary of VE Day. Fair enough. It was a much-needed tip of the hat to a very important historical moment and some of the few surviving heroes who made it possible.

She then spoke about the Department of Justice dropping its prosecution of Lt General Michael Flynn. McEnany spent 1,324 words on Flynn.

“The FBI,” she said in her opening remarks, “exists to investigate crimes…but in the case of Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, it appears that they might have existed to manufacture one.”

Again, that's an important story. It deserved mention. McEnany then entertained media questions.

Left Unsaid

Left out, of course, was the fact that nearly 80,000 Americans are dead of coronavirus. Similarly, there was not a word in her statement about the virus, or a nod to modern-day heroes, the cadre of essential workers—in hospitals, supermarkets, pharmacies, meat plants, utilities, transport or pharma. It would have been easy to slide in a few words during her VE Day tribute. She could have touted old and new heroes.

From a pure news standpoint, perhaps the larger error was omitting mention of the person close to the VP who tested positive. When the briefing started, at 12:38pm EDT, the story about that person, who turns out to be Katie Miller, the VP’s press secretary, was unconfirmed.

One and Done or Not at All

PR is conflicted about how to deal with bad news. Some communicators recommend spokespeople mention bad news once and then move on. Face the bad news head on, say what you're doing about it and the story subsides, some PR pros say.

Others counsel not to mention bad news. If the press doesn't bring it up, you've dodged a bullet. Clearly, this is the approach the Trump administration has bet on for its messaging. It's not a new wager.

During several months of daily coronavirus briefings, for example, the president attempted to put the best face on nearly everything. In theory, that's a good PR move. Accentuate the positive. Say something often enough and many people will believe it. During the briefings, the president's remarks were peppered with references to the "fantastic job" his administration was doing against the virus. Tests and PPE were plentiful, the president repeated.

A problem with the no-bad-news approach, though, is that it often crumbles when awful facts are present. 80,000 dead Americans qualify as awful facts. The president rarely mentioned it.

An additional problem with the no-bad-news approach is that when you ignore elephants in the room, you can be assured someone else will ask for an explanation.

Indeed, the second question during Friday's media briefing addressed how average Americans are supposed to feel safe about reopening the country in the coming week if the White House, with access to presumably the best testing in the land, can’t keep its people healthy. Polls show a lot of people are concerned about reopening too early.

Opaque Answer

McEnany’s response seemed a non-answer. After confirming a second White House staffer had tested positive, she said, “We have put in place the guidelines that our experts…put forward to keep this building safe, which means contact tracing.  All of the recommended guidelines we have for businesses that have essential workers, we’re now putting in place here in the White House. So as America reopens safely, the White House is continuing to operate safely.”

Another principle PR is unanimous on is how important it is to integrate your message with facts.

For example, when your brand narrative says you’re ‘the friendly brand,’ it’s critical to make sure public-facing employees are in fact friendly to customers.

Mixed Messages

Unfortunately, the White House has sent mixed messages on the virus almost from the beginning. The CDC recommends social distancing, contact tracing and mask wearing. At no time has the president worn a mask. Social distancing inside the people's house seems sporadic.

Similarly, another mixed message. The president mentioned during the weekend that he wasn’t terribly concerned about finding a vaccine. He said he believes the virus will go away on its own. His medical team, though, has said the opposite.

Similarly, the president repeatedly has seemed skeptical about the importance of testing. Again, his medical team has not. The public is left in the middle, confused.

And More

Another mixed message; earlier in the day, the president visited the WWII memorial. He wasn’t wearing a mask. It appeared he was a safe distance from the 90-something-year-old veterans who were on hand to greet him.

When asked about the potential of exposing veterans to the virus, especially since the president’s valet tested positive, McEnany assured reporters of the veterans’ safety.

A Deadly Conundrum?

Then she stumbled. “[The veterans] made the choice to come…because they’ve chosen to put their nation first.  They wanted to be with their Commander-in-Chief on this momentous day.  And it was their choice to come….” It sounded as if McEnany was implying members of this vulnerable group knew they could catch the virus, but chose to expose themselves anyhow.

The briefing ended with what seemed like an emblematic exchange:

Reporter: “Why did you spend the first part of this briefing talking about Mike Flynn —"

McEnany: “Justice matters.”

Reporter: “…when both the President and Vice President were exposed to coronavirus and we have historic unemployment?”

Oh, yes, that. Another piece of bad news that was omitted from McEnany's opening statement.