The Shriving bells ring across the UK and Christians tomorrow embark on their Lenten self-examination, repenting from sins and learning lessons from their mistakes; a spiritual mirroring of the 40 days and nights of prayer and fasting faced by Jesus of Nazareth during his temptation.
Today also marks 40 days since Sean Spicer became White House Press Secretary and for many PR professionals it has been a painful time, a period of collective gnashing of teeth from an industry already clothed in sackcloth and ashes as a result of the age of spin and the consequent widespread distrust.
A catalogue of communications catastrophes have been the hallmark of Spicer’s first 40 days. It was an inauspicious start at his first press conference: a rambling rebuke of the press including wild claims over inauguration crowd numbers contradicting all other evidence, later famously described as ‘alternative facts’.
Since then the Australian PM was referred to as Michael “Trumble” two days in a row, the Canadian Premier misnamed as “Joe” Trudeau, not to mention several allusions to a fictional terror attack in Atlanta (we’re later told he misspoke three times and meant Orlando).
The latest in the Trump administration’s war on the media and ‘fake news’, much of which is described by Spicer’s boss as “the enemy of the American people”, has seen the BBC, CNN, The New York Times and the Guardian, excluded from some more informal press briefings, yet allowing more conservative publications into the meeting. This, plus rants over
‘fake news’, and some help from the satirists at Saturday Night Live, has seen Spicer become the news story.
So how can Spicer seek absolution of his PR sins and in a spirit of vicarious atonement, what lessons can be learnt for those communicating to the media and investors?
The first commandment of communications is “Thou shalt not lie”. This is obvious I realise, but so many communication professionals are accused of getting in the way of the truth (even if not lying directly) and providing too much spin. Spin itself is the bread and butter of the PR world, but can only be used in conjunction with an established respect for the communicator as a reliable and credible source of information.
All communication professionals will look to put the best gloss on their story, but need to do so in a way that is not misleading and is based on solidly established facts.
There is no room for a PR professional to blame incorrect information or that someone told them the wrong things. The media, investors and other shareholders are reliant on trusting in the credibility of their PR or IR contact so that they can write accurate news stories or make significant financial decisions.
Spicer might also do well to consider the imperative to “Love thy enemy”. Whilst no sensible PR would agree with the premise that the media or investors are the enemy, both groups can be on occasion hostile and I hope that I am not being too naïve to say that journalists and investors don’t want to wilfully get the story wrong and to misunderstand what a company is doing. They want to get to the truth.
But let’s be honest, sometimes journalists and investors get things wrong, or get bad leads, or only part information, or information without context, and so PR and IR professionals need to be relied upon to give clarifying factual information. Disengaging or excluding media or investors that challenge and criticise you will only make matters worse.
Spicer has made a pledge not to lie to the media and to share the facts as he knows them, and whilst commendable, if he’s lost his credibility as a spokesman and can’t be trusted to provide basic factual information he will be spending a much longer time in the PR wilderness: continuing to be the story and not communicating it.
Vatican City to City Spin
Not many City advisers can claim to have been a Vatican DJ and the first and (probably) last person to play Jimi Hendrix on Vatican Radio.
Mr McManus began his career as an English voice broadcaster for Vatican Radio in Rome before joining City PR firm Binns & Co. In 2009 he founded Walbrook PR, which provides financial PR and investor relations advice to smaller growing companies.
Walbrook advises over 65 small cap and AIM listed companies valued from £5m up to £300m including Yorkshire based companies like Animalcare, Getech, Filtronic, Mobile Tornado, OptiBiotix, Surgical Innovations and Renew Holdings.