By Simon Brooke.
If you had any doubt that messaging and communications around Covid is difficult, then just look at the confusion and chaos surrounding the condition of President Trump.
I spend quite a bit of time in my media training courses working with PR professionals and inhouse communications teams to help develop, hone and test their messages.
The White House operation here offers many lessons in how not to manage a message and to some extent, a crisis. The first is consistency of messaging. In any situation, but especially a crisis, identifying one clear message and sticking to it is vital. You can’t change your story half way through the unfolding media coverage.
In this case the question of just how ill Mr Trump is and exactly what treatment he’s had could hardly be more confused.
His doctors, the White House press office and his own team, have been giving out contradictory messages. The medics were initially positive about his prospects. On Sunday they reported that his health “continues to improve”, and that he could be discharged on Monday.
Clear communications and media management
However, the presidential chief of staff, Mark Meadows, had said earlier that Mr Trump’s “vitals are very concerning”, adding that the next 48 hours would be “critical”. Certainly, the details that were released about his treatment seemed to suggest that Mr Meadows’ diagnosis was more accurate. Dexamethasone, a steroid, prescribed after Mr Trump’s blood oxygen level dipped, was, according to one expert, an “extremely worrying sign”.
There’s been much discussion about whether the President had oxygen or not. The other question concerned when the diagnosis was made. The president’s personal physician, Dr Sean Conley, reported that he was “72 hours into the diagnosis”. This suggested that the president, who revealed that he had Covid early on Friday, could have tested positive as early as Wednesday.
To add to conspiracy theories and confusion, another doctor on the White House team referred to a treatment that the president received “about 48 hours ago”. This too would have been well before he apparently learned that he had tested positive. Then came his bizarre lap of honour, putting his staff at risk as they sat with him in the hermetically sealed presidential limo.
I make the point in my crisis media training courses that you need to be open but, in this case, why would you want to reveal so much about the President’s treatment? It would be quite reasonable to say that this is a private matter while giving a general update on his condition.
What does off the record mean?
Mr Meadows’ comments were part of an “off the record” briefing. People often ask me “What does off the record mean?” Normally, it’s unattributable. That means reporters would have quoted Mr Meadows but added wording such as “according to a White House source” or “one very senior Trump aid explained that…”
However, if the story’s big enough – and this one certainly is – journalists will burn their contacts, in other words, reveal the source.
Here, it seems, Cheryl Bolen, the Bloomberg News White House reporter, who was on pool duty (that is covering the story for all news organisations) on Saturday, respected the “off the record” status but other journalists, jumping on her reports, didn’t.
Dr Conley explained yesterday that there was confusion over the President’s condition because Mr Meadow’s words were “misconstrued”. This is a classic way of dealing with embarrassing comments by a colleague. The problem is that very often it’s impossible to imagine how a simple clear statement was misinterpreted or taken out of context.
One spokesperson, a single source of truth
This brings me on to another point. In any crisis or serious situation, you need one spokesperson, one source of truth. Either the doctors should speak here, or the White House press office should provide all updates and information. Part of the confusion and media storm is due to the fact that so many people close to the story are offering differing views and messages.
Updates need to be clear and unambiguous. As the BBC’s North America editor, Jon Sopel, put it on the Today programme, Dr Conley is trying to address two audiences – the public and Donald Trump while acting as a spin doctor rather than a medical doctor. You need to be clear about your audiences and tailor your messages accordingly but ensure that they don’t contradict anything else you’ve said.
If you’re closing a factory, for instance, the local media will be concerned about job losses and so communications should focus on what you’re doing to minimise the human impact.
The markets, on the other hand, will be concerned about this leaves your overall strategy, your market share and your profitability among other considerations. Therefore, your lines to the Financial Times and other, similar, outlets will focus on these issues. You’re still giving out the same overall message to the world but there’s a change of emphasis depending on the audience.
There’s one other issue that the White House should think about. I talk a lot in my media training courses about the narrative. However fast changing and unpredictable the situation might be, it’s important to put your messages into context to demonstrate a logical flow or progression.
Defining the narrative in crisis communications
At the moment the narrative in this situation, among the media, anyway, is to put it crudely: that idiot Donald Trump downplayed Covid and now he’s caught it – poetic justice, eh?
The White House press office, who should, of course, be the only ones talking, might consider a narrative that says something along these lines: the President has been fighting Covid while keeping the economy going and safeguarding jobs. Now, following this frightening experience – one that too many of his fellow Americans have also undergone – he’s more determined than ever, as president, to lead the effort to save others from going through what he’s gone through.
Believable? Well, it obviously depends on your political viewpoint. However, the point is that every piece of corporate communications, every update in a crisis, every line to take on a difficult issue needs to be put into an overall context or narrative.
This, along with simple, clear, regularly updated messages from one source, is something that the White House might want to take note of.
Simon Brooke is a copywriter, media trainer, speechwriter and journalist.