So You’re Sean Spicer …

It’s easy to lampoon Sean Spicer, Donald Trump’s press secretary. He does it himself every day.

But what would you do?

Your boss tells you that you need to go out and spank the media, be tough like he is, and tell them that the crowd at your inauguration was the biggest ever. Period. It’s your first day on the job. It’s a job you really like and want to keep. So you give the president your advice, that saying this about the crowd will make all of you look foolish. The president asks you “Whose side are you on?” If you won’t go out there and straighten the press out he’ll find someone who will. Trump’s decision is made, and you have your marching orders.

So what do you do? Easy to say, those of us who don’t have such cool apex-predator jobs, that we’d resign rather than say something we know is not true. But would we? Would you? You make your case, you lose, the boss tells you what to do. He’s the boss.

What about something not so black and white. The message to be delivered today as the House tinkers with the Trumpcare bill is that, by removing the requirements in Obamacare that 10 essential benefits be covered, consumers will have more choice and their coverage will cost less. The essential benefits are things like prenatal care, mental health and substance abuse care, therapy and devices to help recovery after injuries or for chronic conditions, prescription drug coverage and six more. An older man, say, could chose a plan that doesn’t cover prenatal care. Sounds good, right?

But by letting people pick and choose, costs will go up for the people who do need things like prenatal care. And, if the costs get too high and a mother doesn’t get prenatal care, guess who pays for the ensuing problems her child has once born? Everybody pays, especially when care is sought through emergency rooms by people who can’t afford the coverage after it’s been cherry-picked.

So, what you’re telling people — that choice is good for everybody — simply isn’t true. At least that’s a reasonable argument. But your job is not to present both sides of a case. It’s to support the case you’re advocating for. If you’re selling soda-pop, it’s not your job to point out that a 12-ounce can of soda has 10 teaspoons of sugar in it. But it’s probably also not your job to say that soda-pop is healthy.

Spicer today eagerly and strongly asserted that doing away with the requirement that health plans cover these 10 essential services is better for health-care consumers. If you were told to say that, what would you do?

My easy answer #2 is that I wouldn’t work for someone in the first place who has shown his entire career that he sides with the rich and doesn’t give a damn about the little guy, whom he has consistently stiffed. I wouldn’t work for someone in the first place whose values are based on selfishness — I’ve got mine and you’re on your own to get yours, even when mine is crowding out yours.

But Spicer wanted this job. He’s not just some guy who came out of Trump University with a bubble-gum-card diploma. He has a master’s degree in national security and strategic studies from the Naval War College. He’s worked in communication for Congress and for the Republican Party. He’s not a rube or a dupe. I don’t think.

So … the president tells you to go out and say, for example, that Paul Manafort played “a limited role for a very limited time” in the Trump campaign. That’s nonsense, of course, for a man who was campaign chairman.

What do you do? Chime in here, let us know your thoughts.

— Bruce Benidt

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Hillary — Meet the Press, Dammit

Let’s just say it out loud: Hillary Clinton is wrong, selfish, stupid and irresponsible to not hold regular press conferences. Or at least one for goodness sake.

She is either a coward, or her ambition has crowded out her soul and what shreds of ethics she may still keep in a jar by the door.

If you read Carl Bernstein’s book A Woman in Charge, you’ll take this great journalist’s view that her ambition leads her to do whatever it takes to get to where she wants to go. Whatever it takes.

Including spurning much of the media. She hasn’t had a news conference in almost nine months. Yes she does some interviews one-on-one. Yes she calls in to some chosen news shows. Yes she sat down with Chris Wallace of Fox, one of the best, most fair and toughest interviewers out there. And she stuck her foot in her mouth.

But this is part of how you let America see you. You meet the press. This is part of what we voters deserve. To see how you handle tough inquiries from reporters in an uncontrollable scrum. Unruly? Sure. Unpredictable? Yes, thank god. And an important part of democracy. The media is not part of your marketing department, Madame Secretary. I’ve worked with a few public relations clients who felt that way. It’s wrong. It’s cynical.

Listening to Clinton answer journalists like Anderson Cooper’s questions on why she doesn’t hold a press conference is excruciating. If Clinton listens to herself she must shiver like someone tasting spoiled milk, or like John McCain every night when he realizes he’s gone another day without retracting his endorsement of Donald Trump. “Well Anderson I talk to lots of reporters, as I am right now with you, and I have done hundreds of interviews and…” blah blah blah. Answer the question. Answer them all.

Are you a less-skilled communicator than Geraldine Ferraro, Walter Mondale’s VP nominee, who in 1984 took questions from 200 reporters for nearly two hours about shady financial dealings she and her husband were accused of? She stood there and took everything they could throw at her. And here’s Ragan’s PR Daily’s assessment of the outcome, from a 2011 piece on Ferraro’s death:

It helped reverse the narrative that she was not transparent;

It turned her into a more sympathetic figure;

It offered Ferraro a vital opportunity to show her mettle as a female candidate who could endure the intensity of the media’s scrutiny.

Don’t you have Ferraro’s guts, don’t you have what it takes, Madame Secretary? Is that why you’re hiding?

I’m a former daily newspaper reporter and a former college journalism teacher and I believe deeply in the role of the free press in helping us make crucial civic decisions. Those who avoid the press, who seek only to manipulate it and use it for their own ends, are putting their own interests before the best interests of the country. It’s wrong. It’s pathetic. Stop hiding, Hillary. Let us see how you handle tough times. Yes, we’ve seen you stand up to tough questioning before, as with the House Benghazi committee. Get out there again. Regularly.

Your failure to meet the press undermines any criticism you rightly make about Donald Trump’s despicable and willful refusal to release his tax returns. His failure is greater, but it’s on the same scale of cowardly hiding of what the public has a right and duty to know and understand.

Some people in your campaign are saying you’re playing a “run down the clock” campaign now, lying low to not blow your lead. If you are doing that, you risk my vote. I’m very liberal, I agree with you on most policy positions, but your actions are showing deep character flaws. I hope you thank god every night that the idiot Republicans have put up a barbarian to run against you. An actual human being would defeat you. And you’d deserve it.

— Bruce Benidt

Hillary’s Perfect “How Not To” Crisis Case Study

“Tell it all, tell it early, tell it yourself.” These are Lanny Davis’s guidelines for crisis communications.

Hillary Clinton has violated all of them. And that’s why the email albatross is still screeching around her neck, making the majority of Americans feel she’s not truthful. Clinton’s email mess and her increasing obfuscation and dodging is the quintessential example of a crisis so poorly handled that it is never allowed to die. She shot herself in the left foot by setting up a private email system, and she continues to shoot off toe after toe on her own right foot with increasingly obtuse loads of bullshit which are crippling her campaign and destroying her credibility.crisis-tales-9781451679298_hr

Lanny Davis helped Bill Clinton through Monica and impeachment, is a partner in a crisis communications firm, and has written a pretty darn good book about handling crises, Crisis Tales. Hillary has been acting for months not only as if she’s never met Davis, but as if she’s never heard the most basic advice a junior account executive in PR would give someone in a crisis — “get the thing over with, get everything out, deal with it and don’t let it drag on.”

Another crisis comm bromide: It you’re explaining, you’re losing. Clinton is still explaining, to Fox News, to the associations of Black and Hispanic Journalists, to anybody who can still stand to listen. Which is almost nobody.

And the final rule in handling crises — have somebody with a finely tuned bullshit detector on your team who will speak truth to power. Somebody needed to sit Clinton down and tell her last week — “No, Hillary, FBI director Comey did NOT say your FBI testimony was consistent with all your public statements. No, Hillary, you did NOT short-circuit your answer with Chris Wallace on Fox, you were NOT talking past each other. What you are saying, Hillary, is NOT TRUE. And people will know it, and they’ll recognize that you’re still spinning and dodging and dancing and they’ll rightly conclude you’re not trustworthy.” Tough stuff to say, but that’s what a smart person needs around her, someone who will tell her the truth. Has anyone? Does she not listen?

As hundreds of observers have said, this whole mess could have been dealt with honestly and openly when the email issue first surfaced and it would have caused much less harm than this dragged-out water torture has.

But what should Hillary do now? I watched Joe Scarborough struggle with this on Morning Joe today, trying to role play what Hillary might say now. It’s not easy. Scarborough stumbled through some straight talk and some obfuscation, went too far, said too much, and ended up promising a Clinton term would be the most ethical in history.

If I were advising Clinton, I’d have her say something like this: “I haven’t been as forthcoming and clear as I need to be about this email mistake I made, and I want to correct that. Having a private server was a mistake in judgment pure and simple, and I’m sorry for it. And how I’ve handled questions about it has caused many people to doubt my honesty, and I regret that. I ask people to judge my character and capability based on my whole record of public service, where my constituents and colleagues have trusted me.”

Something like this could help, even now. What she says has to be short, simple, and has to address head on the elephant in the room — people don’t trust Hillary.

By not stepping up and openly taking the hit, Clinton has caused herself months and months of debilitating atrophy of her reputation and — has increased the possibility that a crude, immature, ignorant huckster might become president. We’re all paying the price for Hillary Clinton’s refusal to deal honestly and forthrightly with a crisis.

— Bruce Benidt

 

 

 

 

Let It Bleed, Bud

Good PR move, Bud Selig. And bless the fans in Chicago.

Bud has flung out suspensions for a dozen players who cheated the game, but he leaves Alex Rodriguez on the field to represent the absolute worst in baseball for the rest of the season.

Crisis management 101 — get everything out and get it behind you. Don’t let a wound slowly bleed.

A-Rod deserves to buried up to his nose in a vat of mustard for the rest of the season and the rest of his career — see how long his testosterone lasts treading mustard.

Baseball is busy congratulating itself for being tough on cheaters. Right. Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig, who somehow missed that players like Bonds and Clemens and Sosa and McGwire were juicing and ruining the game’s grace and history and spirit, is trying to reclaim his reputation by being tough on the current crop of cheaters. Dozens of players have spoken out saying they’re tired of the cheaters winning pennants and MVP awards and lifetime records while honest players plug along. Fans are sick of it. Every exciting performance by a new home-run hitter or mow-em-down pitcher comes with the question — is he juicing?

Selig could have bounced A-Rod for life. Could have bounced him for the rest of this season and next, not letting him play while he appealed. But, apparently fearing a lawsuit or trouble with the union, Selig took the easiest way out and gave a suspension that allows the arrogant sniveling thief to still play, likely for the rest of the season, while a slow appeals process drips on.

You thought a lawsuit or union troubles would be bad for the game, Bud? How about the spectre of one of the most dishonest disgusting disingenuous hypocritical greedy bastards to ever pull on a jockstrap slouching into stadium after stadium modeling how well cheating works from now until October? How good is that for baseball?

Our only hope is that what the fans in Chicago started Monday, when they riotously booed every step Rodriguez took out of the dugout, will continue for every inning of every game the lying crook plays the rest of the season. Let’s take it upon ourselves to shame this creep under a rock.

Reach in your suit pants and find a pair, bud. Rid the game of this shameful imposter.

Or watch the great American game bleed to death. On your watch.

My brother David and I have watched Class A minor-league games the last two nights in gorgeous little ballparks in Iowa. Baseball remains a beautiful and amazingly difficult game to play. But when cheaters are chemically inflating their performances, there’s nothing on that field of dreams that we can trust. So we’ll turn away.

Unless you stop the bleeding.

— Bruce Benidt
(Image from epicurious.com)

The Silence of the NRA, The Voices of the Children

Only once in my crisis-counseling career have I advised a client to just stay quiet. Say nothing. Don’t return media calls. It was an organization accused of something, and they knew worse was likely to be disclosed. Nothing was going to help — not getting out in front of it, not giving a short, straight explanation, not an apology. They just had to keep their heads down and take a beating.

Usually the communications advice in a crisis is to say something, even if it’s just to say “We’re looking into this and will get back to you.” (I am not one of those who advises people to mouth that empty cliche, “We take this very seriously…” — Well, duh, what are you going to say, “Nah, we don’t really care”?) The advice is usually to get your point of view in the mix as soon as possible.

The National Rifle Association has kept its head down since the shootings in Connecticut. Not a word. Not a reply to reporters’ calls, according to The New York Times. No tweets, no website comment for several days after the shootings. Don’t even return reporters’ calls? That’s a no-no in our business. But, really, what could they say?

Newtown Connecticut shootingNow there is a post on NRA.org that says the organization was allowing time for mourning and that the four million NRA moms, dads, sons and daughters were “shocked, saddened and heartbroken” by the tragedy. Then: “The NRA is prepared to offer meaningful contributions to help make sure this never happens again. The NRA is planning to hold a major news conference in the Washington, DC area on Friday, December 21.”

Stay tuned. In the week since the shootings, the weather has changed for the NRA. Politicians are starting to find their spines. Some reasonable forms of gun and bullet control, once passed and then rescinded, may return as public horror and anger grow. Brian Lambert’s take on leadership in his most recent post lays out the issues well. Leaders at many levels — city, state, federal — are stirring.

But follow the money. The NRA can stay silent in public but speak with their dollars in elections. That’s their MO. A story in Tuesday’s New York Times shows how they take out legislators who are insufficiently loyal to their view of the Second Amendment.

But money cuts both ways. Pressured by the California teacher’s pension fund, Cerberus Capital Management, a private equity fund that owns several gun companies, is selling them. “The move by Cerberus is a rare instance of a Wall Street firm bending to concerns about an investment’s societal impact rather than a profit-at-all-costs ethos,” the Times reported. Some public employees don’t want their pension money supporting 30-bullet magazines. Way to go.

The NRA has been speaking softly and carrying a big stick. Maybe, this time, at last, their voice, and their money, will be overwhelmed by the voices of little children, eloquent in death.

— Bruce Benidt

(Photo from guardian.co.uk)

The Power of a Summary

Hospitals generate reams of patient safety-related data.  But that alone doesn’t make them accountable.

There is power in that data– the power to arm patients and purchasers with the information they need to demand better.  But in the unorganized, unsummarized aggregate, the data are not so powerful. Not to patients anyway.  Obviously, individual patients don’t have the time, inclination or expertise to decipher, organize, summarize and promote the hospital data on their own.  Therefore,  the hospitals’ data are effectively invisible to them.

The hospital data only realizes its potential power in the marketplace when boiled down into something that can be understood by patients at-a-glance, because a glance is all that most of us are willing to give the subject.  Only when boiled down will the hospital data be accessible enough to drive purchasing decisions.

And that is what a national patient safety group called Leapfrog did this week when it summarized hospitals’ patient safety data into school-like grades.  Casting judgements about hospitals is perilous business, because hospitals are fiercely defensive institutions that understandably prefer to promote their miracles over their mistakes.  Though Minnesota hospital leaders were very courageous a few years back to begin publicly disclosing their medical errors, hospital advocates in Minnesota pooh-poohed Report Card Day:

“It’s really a repackaging of what’s publicly available,” (Minnesota Hospital Association (MHA) data expert Mark) Sonneborn said.

I really should have tried that one when I was a lad.  “Chill mom, that “D” in Social Studies is actually just a repackaging of information that has been available to you all semester.”

Yes, the data behind the grades is available from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.  So, if I understood which measures were most meaningful, and I don’t, it would have been technically possible for me to construct the spreadsheet that the Leapfroggers did, and make some kind of a comparison on my own.

But the practical reality is that I never did, and never would.  Life is just too busy to summarize all the data impacting my life.  And even if I was geeky enough to do my own little patient safety data research project, the effort would only benefit me, and not the rest of the country.

MHA is correct that Leapfrog’s methodology is just “repackaging.” But the grades will drive quality improvements much faster than the status quo way of managing the data.  Because whether a hospital got an “A” or a “F” grade, the minute hospital leaders know that easily understood grades are going to be regularly appearing in the hometown news media and competitors’ marketing materials is the moment they start investing more effort, thought and resources into patient safety improvements.    With the advent of publicized grades, they now know that consumers and purchasers will use their new found knowledge to vote with their feet, and their pocketbooks.

Markets work if consumers are informed, and the beauty of the grades is that they are simple enough to do that.  Lifesaving work is most often done by the miracle workers in hospitals wielding scalpels, microscopes, medications, lasers, gauze, latex, disinfectants and needles.  To be sure, these folks are heros.  But lifesaving work can also be done, indirectly, by data jockeys wielding spreadsheets and press releases.  Leapfrog, I give you an “A.”

– Loveland

Of Big Gulps, PR Ethics, Courage and Hidden Identity

Is it ethical for a company to hide its identity when it enters into robust public discussion of important social issues? Is it decent?

Is it ethical for PR people to be part of this charade?

Some big businesses apparently have the backbone of a Hostess Twinkie. If news and blog reports are accurate, Philip Morris, Wendy’s and Coca-Cola are some of the companies that are behind a clever and arresting ad campaign against New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s efforts to fight obesity by banning restaurant sales of sugary drinks in bottles and cups larger than 16 ounces.

The ads are put up by ConsumerFreedom.com. At its website, the “consumer” group, The Center for Consumer Freedom, says:

Many of the companies and individuals who support the Center financially have indicated that they want anonymity as contributors. They are reasonably apprehensive about privacy and safety in light of the violence and other forms of aggression some activists have adopted as a “game plan” to impose their views, so we respect their wishes.

Images of hordes of crazed tofu eaters and green tea drinkers with pitchforks and torches storming corporate headquarters to extract vengeance.

Really?

Obesity is epidemic. We all pay the price, through our health insurance premiums and taxes, for the health damage obesity causes. So — as is true with stemming the health costs of smoking through anti-smoking campaigns — this is a fair issue for public debate. Should government protect public health through laws? We ban asbestos in insulation because it causes cancer. We ban drinking while driving because it kills and maims people. We ban cigarette advertising on TV because it can lure young people into starting smoking. It’s no coincidence that obesity in America has risen while beverage companies have moved from 12-ounce serving sizes to 16, 24 and more.

Should the foods and drinks that cause health-destroying obesity be regulated? And, if so, how? Fair questions, and all sides should be heard in a spirited public debate.

But many on one side lack the courage to put their names behind their messages.

Yes, Coca-Cola and McDonald’s (and I’m sure others) have come out publicly against Bloomberg’s ban, so they have the courage to oppose this issue in daylight. But there is something pernicious about advertising that hides its funders. That’s one of the issues in Citizens United. There is a big difference between a consumer reading that Coca-Cola opposes the ban and a consumer seeing a clever full-page ad that stirs the consumer’s emotions without disclosing who’s behind the ad.

The Center for Consumer Freedom was apparently founded by Philip Morris to fight smoking restrictions. Their purpose? To help consumers or to sell more products?

Over and over, in the PR business, we form corporate-created and corporate-funded “consumer groups” to push a business message. Is that ethical? Are we okay with that? Is it ethical to form front groups and not disclose who’s behind them?

When I was an impressionable new PR person, our client, Northwest Airlines, asked the PR firm I worked for to get people to call into a radio debate on public financing for airline maintenance and service centers. The question of whether it was good for Minnesota to spend tax dollars to create jobs in Minnesota and keep an important business in the state was a fair one to debate. I was uncomfortable, though, with the request to salt the mine, to get paid to prompt people to call in and support the airline’s position. Astroturf.

Should PR people be part of these kinds of lurking-behind-the-scenes campaigns? What do you think, gentle readers?

— Bruce Benidt