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Trump gives a masterclass in media mismanagement

press conference

The first 48 hours of the Trump presidency have been a masterclass in how not to handle media relations.

With an already fractious relationship between the media and Trump, the rapidly called press conference on Saturday by his Press Secretary, Sean Spicer has now set what is likely to be an unbridgeable void.

At the press conference, Spicer read a prepared script where he dismissed the story that there had been fewer people at Trump’s inauguration than at Obama’s despite there being incontrovertible evidence to the contrary. After making the statement Spicer left the room refusing to take questions or provide further evidence to rebut the media stories.

This conference came at the end of a day when after Trump’s first visit to the CIA he said of the media: “They are among the most dishonest human beings on Earth.”

This gives three key lessons about working with the media:

Don’t alienate the press.

Spicer’s first appearance before the White House press corps should have been one of reconciliation after a fractious campaign and period between the election and inauguration. Instead he took a position of “we are right you are wrong”.

Don’t give facts that can’t be substantiated.

Pictorial evidence and figures from the Washington transport authorities instantly contradict Spicer’s claims. What he didn’t do was provide a basis to his rebuttal and what was the source of his claims. No substantiation was given and the media has continued the narrative which has kept the topic on the agenda.

This was compounded on Sunday when Trump advisors went on TV to justify Spicer’s action and say he was presenting ‘alternative facts’. That was generally derided as meaning ‘untruths’.

Don’t lose credibility

The main question is will the media trust Spicer? That is a question which will be answered in due course but Spicer’s credibility has been damaged and is likely to lead to more problems in the long-term. How will the media respond when there are more important issues to debate such as at times of crisis which with the nature of the job are sure to come.

Much of Trump and Spicer’s behaviour also appears to be a knee-jerk reaction when they feel they are not in control. Like any crisis or reputation management scenario there is a need to deal with the basics first and by doing that the outcome is much more likely to be more pleasing than the alternative we have seen.

Sharapova leads crisis management from the front

Tennis court crisis management

Whatever the outcome of Maria Sharapova’s failed drug test, and its ultimate impact on her future tennis career, the media handling of the announcement is a classic example of being in control of the message.

In the hours before her appearance in front of the world’s media in Los Angeles, the speculation on Twitter was that at the age of 28 she was to retire from the game after she used the social media platform to announce the press conference.

At this stage, no official announcement had been made by the world anti-doping body WADA and no leaks had emerged, which in the age of social media, can quickly lead to damaging speculation and loss of control of the message.

It cannot be overlooked that this is happening against a backdrop of allegations involving a Russian whose country is currently under scrutiny for an alleged doping programme involving Olympic athletes.

Her approach meant she was in the position to break the news of her failed drug test and to put forward her explanation as to why it happened. Sharapova didn’t leave it to legal representatives or her management team to face the media, she led from the front.

Whatever may come to pass with the case, and no judgement is made here, from a crisis communications and reputation management perspective her actions provide useful insights.

The Russian tennis star didn’t hide leaving the media seeking to track her down with potential images showing her seemingly running away. She admitted that she had been taking the substance for 10 years for medical reasons and had been caught by a rule change.

In the conference she was able to outline the case and provide her mitigation. The media were left to seek out more information about the substance rather than making the story a deconstruction of Sharapova and her achievements.

All of this is in contrast to the questions which surrounded Margaret Byrne, the chief executive of Sunderland Football Club, this week about how much she knew about the details of the case surrounding the team’s player Adam Johnson after he was found guilty in a court of law. As media interest grew she was reported to have left for her villa in The Algarve leaving a void and media speculation to grow for a week before she returned and resigned via a press statement.

There is much to learn from the handling of these contrasting situations and it will be interesting to see how Sharapova’s position progresses and if the tennis star is able to maintain control of the story. In contrast Sunderland was not in control of the developing story.

Key lessons for organisations from these situations are that it is important to act acting early as crisis or reputational issue arise, use a senior representative to lead and be open and honest about the situation.