Making the press officer the story is simply a weapon of mass distraction
I don’t know about you but I couldn’t name a single one of Barack Obama’s or even Theresa May’s press secretaries or spokespeople. Yet the names of Sean Spicer, Kellyanne Conway and Stephen Bannon are already household names, only a short time into Donald Trump’s presidency.
In the UK we’ve become used to political spin doctors finding themselves in the media spotlight. Alastair Campbell is probably the most famous over here, followed by Andy Coulson and perhaps the original press handler who blurred their role with becoming a media personality in their own right, Sir Bernard Ingham. All of these have made the headlines, rather than feeding them, for various reasons over the years.
But is it maverick tendencies that leads them to step out of the shadows, or are they being deployed as a communications tool? And, is it a legitimate PR tactic or one that brings the industry into disrepute?
Andy Coulson unwittingly found himself as the central character in the story during the phone hacking inquiry, and was used as a weapon by political opponents rather than through any communications strategy.
Whereas the confrontational approach that Spicer and Conway took with the media, around the President’s inauguration, was a deliberate attempt to reset the relationship between the media and the White House and played to a significant section of Donald Trump supporters.
In doing so, it also made them the story, which arguably took some of the attention off Donald Trump and the stories surrounding attendance figures, executive orders and cabinet appointments. The communications agenda shifted, giving “alternative facts” more headlines than initial governmental policies.
And it’s continued to do so, with Sean Spicer earning the attention of the writers of Saturday Night Live in savage sketches by Melissa McCarthy.
There’s no doubt that Alistair Campbell was used in a similar fashion to Spicer and Conway, delivering negative messages to insulate political paymasters from media scrutiny and criticism. Extraordinary behaviour like this is newsworthy in its own right, making it hard to ignore.
Steve Barrett, editor-in-chief of PRWeek, argues that Sean Spicer is in a pretty impossible position, which is essentially excusing him by saying he is just ‘doing his job’. And yes as a press officer, a proportion of your role is to communicate the perspective of your organisation and to protect its reputation, but does that go as far as to include making knowingly false or misleading statements to advance a point of view or to defend a position?
That moves the person from a having a communications role, into that of being a communications tactic. Conway’s assertion of the Bowling Green Massacre, not once but three times, despite it never having happened, is probably the clearest example here.
It’s hard to think of an example from the private sector where this would or has happened and would result in a comms officer keeping their job, but with Spicer and Conway still in position it strongly suggests they are playing a role within a wider strategy as opposed to acting alone.
Is it legitimate? It depends on your point of view. However, it was reasonably successful in the short-term.
And that, in my opinion, is as far as it will go. This sort of approach is only ever short-term. Press officers are just that: if they don’t provide the press with what they need, the media will find a way to circumnavigate them.
In politics there is always someone willing to give their opinion, whether it tows the party line or not, as witnessed by Trump’s constant references to tapping and leaks.
Which gives Spicer and Conway a limited lifespan in their roles. They are disposable, and can easily be discarded when the time comes. Perhaps that is their role in the wider strategy? To deflect criticism until they become so tainted as to be untenable, but having served their purpose.
However you look at it, this sort of approach does nothing to build public confidence in communications professionals, reinforcing hackneyed stereotypes and building further scepticism in the minds of the audiences.