Donald and Melania Trump. Photo by Marc Nozell via Wikimedia Commons

By Laura Walcher

The irony of Melania Trump echoing the words of Michelle Obama may be slightly enjoyable, but that’s where the humor ends in this very un-enjoyable political season.

Terrifyingly, it reveals yet another Trump stumble in his team’s discourse, where leaders have consistently either ignored — or worse, been unaware of — the basic rules of crisis communication.

As a long-time publicist, I generously offer the Trump coalition these fundamental rules for any person or organization facing a crisis.

1. Media will kill you if it can

So when you’re facing a crises, begin by keeping your mouth shut. Indelicate, sorry.

The star of this practice was Jesse Jackson  When it was revealed that he fathered a child outside of his marriage, he issued a single apology, and never said another public word about it.

And the fact that you don’t remember this proves my point.

You may be certain that if you — or your company — face a crisis, you will have abundant media attention — strengthened (and exploited!) in the web-world today by the prevalence and speed of Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and more — to say nothing of everyday Joe-sadists who take supreme pleasure is distributing and deepening your troubles. Count on it.

2. When a crises hits you, hit control —  fast

  • Identify your spokesperson. Consider the best-informed, coolest, most authoritative head. Your top executive may not be the most appropriate.
  • Inform staff and employees that all media inquiries on the situation will be handled by the designated spokesperson.
  • Don’t pick up that phone! No tweets! No rapid response to emails! The spokesperson should never accept calls from the media without meticulous preparation.  Instead, designate an assistant to first find out:
    • The name of the reporter and media
    • The reporter’s specific questions, if possible
    • The reporter’s deadline
    • This assistant should assure the reporter of a callback as soon as possible, in time to meet the deadline

3. Write your statement

You statement should be crafted as closely as possible to the reporter’s questions. Use declarative sentences with few or no clauses to reduce the chance of being edited. Make sure your statement:

  • Can be read verbatim
  • Maintains consistency of your position
  • Prevents distorted quotes or quotes out of context
  • Prevents spontaneous comments

Whoever returns the call must read the answer verbatim from the prepared statement.

4. Once you have a statement, stick to the message

If you are being sought by more than one media outlet, issue this statement in writing, to all, equally. This will decrease the possibility of interpretation.  Update statements as needed, and keep media and personnel informed regarding new developments.

5. Learn the art of deflection

If necessary, deflect questions in order to respond with the written statement. (“As I’ve said …” or “To repeat …”) Warning:  “deflection” is the evil stepbrother of the lie.  You must absolutely never, but never, lie. The goal is damage control, not deception.  You will always be found out.

6. “No comment” is a no-no

It antagonizes the media and the public and creates suspicion. Retreats usually trigger a rash of negative news reports. In a fluid situation, conduct constant research and monitoring so you know every aspect of the problem ahead of the media.

You may say that you’re investigating the problem, or that you’ll comment on a particular aspect at a designated time (after careful preparation, see #4). In a situation in which you or your company is at fault, be human!  Express your regret, your sorrow, etc., but always couple such acknowledgments with assurance of remedial action you intend to take.

In a crisis, your reputation is at stake. As you prepare your responses to media, consider others you need to communicate with: employees, shareholders, etc., and craft specific statements for each as needed.

7. Finally, ask yourself these three questions

  • How will our decisions and actions affect news coverage?
  • How will our decisions and actions affect our reputation?
  • How will news coverage affect our reputation?

Poor Melania!  She’s been the victim of an incompetent team. From rage, to several stabs at weak justifications, explanations and dismissive sneers, the Trumpsters finally landed on an apologetic speechwriter, but not before they suffered — and will likely continue to suffer — the consequences of ignoring basic crisis communication, and the realization that … media will kill you if it can. 

Laura Walcher is principal PR consultant to J.Walcher Communications, a San Diego-based public relations and marketing firm.

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