In the world of Public Affairs there is one essential rule that professionals need to adhere: always tell the truth.
You cannot lie.
You can say no comment, I can’t confirm, I’m not able to discuss it, or any number of responses, but you can never tell a lie.
When you are a press spokesperson you have two bosses, the one who hired you and the media. As soon as you deal in falsehoods you lose the trust and respect of the media, which in turn renders you as lame duck for your boss.
With this in mind, let’s look at Sean Spicer. Spicer is Donald Trump’s press secretary who, during his first press briefing on Saturday, unleashed a diatribe against the press for reporting that Donald Trump’s inauguration crowd had been smaller than that of Barack Obama’s. In itself it is surprising that Spicer would choose the topic of crowd sizes to take on the press for the first time, but then he went further, and lied.
“This was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period,” Spicer told journalists, a claim that many have proved is inaccurate. He then left the podium without taking any questions.
But the controversy didn’t stop there.
On Sunday, Kellyanne Conway, Trumps Campaign Manager and now Senior Advisor, went on NBC’s “Meet the Press”, defending Spicer saying he gave, “alternative facts”. This has now become a punchline for everyone. Facts are facts. Period. There is no room for alternative facts.
Now are crowd sizes a critical issue and should we care if they are embellished? Yes, because it was not an embellishment it was a lie.
When it blew up, instead of apologizing and accepting his mistake, Spicer went silent and Conway, who up until now has been held in high regard, doubled down and offered up the excuse, “alternative facts”.
A press secretary has one of the hardest jobs in politics. You have two masters, and if one is happy it usually means the other is not. It is also a position that demands professionalism; there are always tensions between the two audiences, as the press will work to hold administrations accountable, but has to do so with respect. Larry Speaks, press secretary to President Richard Nixon would tell reporters, “You don’t tell us how to stage the news and we won’t tell you how to cover it.”
It baffles me that President Trump, who needs to demonstrate that he is ready to take on Commander in Chief of the most powerful country in the world, chose instead to focus on crowd sizes and at the same time risk the currency of his press secretary.
Whether or not you like the press isn’t the issue. They are a healthy part of our democracy, and if you don’t believe in this you shouldn’t run for office.
Bonnie Staples-Lyon is Argyle’s Director of Public Affairs and leads our public relations, government relations, reputation management, issues management and community engagement division.