The whirlwind of presidential election news, opinions, polls and debates that dominated the news cycle recently came to an end, but we can still learn from the communications successes and failures each campaign experienced.
Here, we’re going to focus more on correcting the errors. Naturally, both candidates could have found effective communications advice in PR Week, Forbes, PRSA and … “The West Wing”?
Yep, that’s right – “The West Wing.” This comical drama of life at the White House teaches four public relations lessons that could have spared both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump major embarrassments during their campaigns.
Just as a reminder, or in case you’ve never seen the show, here’s a review of the main characters you’ll need to know:
- Jed Bartlet, President of the United States
- Toby Ziegler, Communications Director
- Sam Seaborn, Deputy Communications Director
- J. Craig, Press Secretary
- Perception, perception, perception
Most episodes of “The West Wing” cannot run for 10 minutes without mentioning this word: perception. It’s always about perception.
One poignant example is when the White House releases the financial statements of its employees. Toby Ziegler gets into trouble because a technology stock he purchased years ago skyrocketed after he arranged for his friend to testify at a government hearing on a new piece of technology. He is absolutely clueless about the workings of the stock market and finds out he made $100,000 when his financial statement is pulled.
Ziegler and Sam Seaborn, who studied law, discuss the implications of Ziegler’s situation. They break the assessment into two segments: (1) actual trouble and (2) “PR trouble.” Legally, they concluded, Ziegler is in no “actual trouble.” As far as perception is concerned, however, he’s in big trouble because it “looks” like insider trading.
The lesson is this: Perception is everything.
Coming into the election, Clinton carried a perception of avoiding the truth which hurt her progression.
According to the PoliZette, “The Democratic National Convention’s primary mission — to reduce Hillary Clinton’s sky-high dishonesty perception — appears to be floundering … For years, Clinton has maintained an arms-length relationship with the truth, grudgingly revealing embarrassing facts only when forced and speaking falsehoods even on trivial matters.”
A little more understanding about the importance of perception, not necessarily fact, as Ziegler and Seaborn teach, might have changed Clinton’s strategy when addressing the press.
- Hire help
Communications work can be overpowering and requires expertise – a concept which “The West Wing” staff wisely implemented when they hired an additional media and political consultant after a few communications slip-ups.
The lesson: Sometimes, you just cannot do it alone – you need to hire professional help.
This is a lesson that Trump struggled to learn. He took a do-it-yourself approach to most of his public relations, which seemed to work well, but Sue Carswell, a reporter at People who wrote about Trump and his public relations staff, criticized this method as “farcical.”
“Here was this so-called billion-dollar real estate mogul, and he can’t hire his own publicist,” she said. “It also said something about the control he wanted to keep of the news cycle … and I can’t believe he thought he’d get away with it.”
According to VentureBeat, the ROI on hiring outside communications council is vast. He insists that it:
- Maintains honesty
- Provides better media connections
- Often knows more than the client
- Plans and thinks beyond publicity
In short, perhaps other public relations errors could have been avoided had Trump hired and listened to communications experts.
- Silence is not the best policy.
“The West Wing” characters spend half a dozen episodes learning the damaging effects of silence the hard way. It turns out that the President conceals an illness from his staff and the public. After a year in office, he cannot keep it secret anymore and tells his staff and, eventually, the public. The staff experiences complicated feelings of betrayal and concern, the public perception of the President’s ability to govern drops significantly and the First Lady encounters legal troubles for lying about the illness on an official form for his daughter’s college application.
The lesson: Silence does not cut it anymore. Transparency is the way to go.
Clinton definitely experienced difficulties with this concept. The Atlantic commented, “After spending years in the public eye, Clinton is famously wary of reporters and has a reputation for hating the media… and she has mastered the art of ignoring questions from the press.”
This general policy of silence may have contributed to some of the perception issues we already reviewed. In addition to that, her lack of commenting prevented the public from getting to know Clinton on a more personal level.
Clinton herself admitted at the University of North Carolina in Greensboro on Sept. 15, “When it comes to public service, I’m better at the service part than the public part.”
In this day, silence is not the best policy. The best policy is truth, trust and transparency.
- Fix mistakes immediately and sincerely.
Now that communication is so immediate and accessible to virtually anyone, as well as publishable by virtually anyone, correcting public errors as soon as possible and as transparently as possible is vital to maintaining a solid reputation.
As an example, in a moment of high stress and pressure, “The West Wing” press secretary C.J. Craig makes a comment to the press which gave the impression that the President is unconcerned about his lying to the public regarding his illness and is relieved to focus on a crisis in Haiti. Craig quickly wraps up the press briefing without correcting her meaning and the ensuing articles cause massive problems for the administration.
The lesson: Fix your mistakes as soon as possible or suffer the consequences.
Trump experienced this as well when in a speech on 9/11 he referred to that day as “7/11” by mistake. In the video of this statement, the shocked looks and gossiping conversations of the crowd behind him are visible when Trump does not correct the error. Not only does he fail to recognize or fix it in the moment, but Trump’s staff do not correct it until the following day which gave the public ample time to fill social media with the slip-up.
Had Trump or his staff been quicker in correcting his “slip-of-the-tongue,” the negative media coverage could have been avoided.
The characters of “The West Wing” learned these lessons the hard way, as did Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Take heed now so you don’t have to learn through failure.
- Perception is everything.
- Sometimes, you cannot do it alone – you need to hire professional help.
- Silence does not cut it anymore. Transparency is the way to go.
- Fix your mistakes as soon as possible or suffer the consequences.
Megan Wald was born near Chicago and grew up in Arizona. Her down time consists of reading, playing the piano and watching movies. Megan also considers herself an amateur artist. Such passions and talents allow her to exercise creativity constantly. She learns quickly in and out of the office. (And is currently learning how to write computer code.) Megan is searching for opportunities to learn and develop as a communications professional.