Skip to main content
Commsy creative stuff straight to your inbox


A lesson in PR from Melissa McCarthy 

< Blog home

A lesson in PR from Melissa McCarthy 

Fictional political press secretaries have long been immortalised on our TV screens. We’ve aspired to the smart, funny and kick-ass West Wing press secretary, CJ Cregg, and despaired at the antics of the apoplectic Thick of IT’s Malcolm Tucker.

And we’ve found a new face of communication in the form of Melissa McCarthy. The comedienne transformed into a White House press secretary for a Saturday Night Live skit, not once, but twice*. The results were in equal parts hilarious and horrifying…

So, we thought we’d do a post mortem and see what we could learn about what not to do when in the role of a public facing communicator**.

**Please note, if the content of this blog bears any resemblance to actual persons, living, dead or current White House Secretary, it is purely deliberate.

Don’t make it a ‘you’ vs ‘them’ situation

Melissa McCarthy’s first mistake was to metaphorically light a match and burn every bridge ever built to the ground, by alienating the entire world’s media.

Calling journalists liars and implying they’ve wronged you is unlikely to get you off on the right foot. A big part of a communicator’s role is to build trusted relationships by being a single source of truth. This can take months, if not years to build, and as Melissa McCarthy so beautifully demonstrated, just seconds to destroy.

What she should have done: Take a leaf out of CJ Cregg’s book and build relationships with journalists and colleagues based on trust, humour, and credibility.

Don’t lie to the press and the general public

If the last few months have taught us anything, it’s that the public are now less influenced by objective ‘facts’ put forward by key public figures, who are perceived to be less than trustworthy. Instead they’re more easily swayed by emotive, although not necessarily accurate, factors.

So, it doesn’t help when the White House press secretary starts off a new term in office by inflating certain facts despite photographic evidence to the contrary…

What she should have done: Acknowledge and own what may be deemed less than flattering information. Starting from an honest point, means people will be more likely to listen and believe you in the future.

Don’t just rely on the information you’re given

In one moment in Melissa’s second outing as White House press secretary, she is unable to pronounce the names of several countries and their leaders. A great lesson in never relying on the information you’re provided, whether it’s from a colleague or an external agency. And, if it does turn out to be wrong, take responsibility for your inability to check facts, rather than be quick to lay the blame elsewhere.

What she should have done: Take time to do some research and speak to subject matter experts to ensure she had a good overall understanding of what she was going to be talking about – accuracy is exceptionally important, especially at this level.

Don’t compromise your professional integrity

Blatantly promoting the President’s daughter’s fashion line is a big no-no, especially for the White House press secretary (however sparkly and affordable the bracelet may have been). Given that the PR industry is often associated with ‘spin’, it’s never been more important to demonstrate a commitment to integrity and ethics to protect its reputation. It’s also imperative that PR pros hold their colleagues to the same standard and not be seen to support unethical behaviour.

What she should have done: Brushed up on The Public Relations Society of America’s code of ethics to ensure she wasn’t in breach of it.

Don’t take an aggressive stance

Most people at some point in their careers will find themselves in a situation where the person they’re talking to is making them mad. Maybe they’re criticising your work, or you don’t agree with their point of view.

This is exactly what happened to Melissa McCarthy and rather than keep her composure to ensure she was able to communicate her message effectively, she reacted angrily. And instead of writing about the White House’s response to their questions, the journalists were more likely to go away and write about her reaction to them.

What she should have done: Good spoken communication needs to be delivered clearly, calmly and ideally gum-free, to ensure there can be no ambiguity.

On a more positive note, one thing Melissa did get right was show just how challenging it can be at times to be a communicator. Managing the expectations of a demanding boss, against the accusations of the public, while fielding probing questions from journalists is an unenviable situation.

Hopefully, if there are any senior PR pros out there who are strongly relating to this blog, we hope it’s been helpful. And if your incessant gum-chewing, rage-induced, inaccurate press briefings are actually a cry for help, maybe have a chat to Melissa McCarthy about taking your place – it’s very unlikely anyone would even notice…

*In case you missed it, here’s the first skit…


And the second…

By Helen Deverell for Alive!

“The guys at Alive understand the complexities of our business which means we don’t need to explain the detail of every project or design piece – they’re already on it, which keeps things moving and delivers the results we need.”

Emily Stoten — Head of Marketing, Selecta

“I feel like they own and care for the project as much as we do! I would not use anyone else for my creative work and think Alive is ahead of the game.”

Jo Hobbs — Communications Manager

“Thanks for all your help. We are delighted with the campaign, both in terms of the creativity and messaging but also the thought taken over the rollout of the materials. All looks absolutely fabulous!”

Sarah Crowdy — Campaign and Media Officer Communications, South East Water

“We went to ‘Alive’ for ideas on how to run a specific employee program in Europe. Alan and his team were brilliant in coming up with fresh, creative and practical approaches. The team took charge and executed brilliantly. We are pleased with the progress made so far and hope to have the same level of partnership and commitment going forward.”

Sobha Varghese — Tata Consultancy Services

“We had the privilege to work with the Alive team. It was our first time to be involved in creating an animation for our patients within paediatrics. The team were approachable, friendly, creative and very accommodating. Your vision for what you want to create, is at all times acknowledged, appreciated and accommodated by the team. They worked effectively and with great passion towards our project and worked not only alongside health professionals but also our patients who really enjoyed the experience of working with the Alive team. It has given our team the confidence and inspiration to do further projects in the future. We highly recommend Alive and their exceptional team.”

DR ELENI ATHANASAKOS, Lead Paediatric Clinical Scientist — NHS Barts Health

“‘The short animation developed in co-production with clinicians and young people is outstanding! Informative, developmentally appropriate, vitally fun and engaging. We are really grateful for the expertise of the Alive with Ideas team for their innovative approach in building children’s health literacy.'”

Kath Evans — Director of Children’s Nursing at Barts Health

“Our mission was to update our brand visuals to better reflect our innovative and forward-thinking organisation. After receiving numerous pitches from different branding agencies, Alive stood out with their clear passion and understanding of our identity and goals. We thoroughly enjoyed working with the Alive Team to create an engaging new brand that we are immensely proud of.”

Lianne Springer — Communications and Engagement Lead

“Alive wowed us during the pitch process and they didn’t stop wowing us throughout the whole project. Every person we worked with at Alive were so friendly, knowledgeable and clearly passionate about what they do. They have worked with us to really understand what we do and have created a new brand and website that really stands out from our competitors. Thank you!”

Louise Burnard, Head of Marketing and Communications UK — Be | Shaping the Future

“I think the team have done such a brilliant job, particularly with responding to our requests. It's one of the best mental health videos I've ever seen. Very proud to be associated with your exemplary work. Thank you so much.”

Dr Anna Batho — Clinical Psychologist – Critical Care, UCLH

“We have worked with Alan, Caroline and the wider Alive With Ideas team for many years. In that time, they have provided a dedicated service that is second to none. We appreciate their attention to detail and creative approach to bringing our brand, communications and stories to life. And would recommend them to anyone looking for creative communications support.”

Georgia Beech — Internal Communications Specialist, Ocado Group

“This is brilliant. I wanted to give my heartfelt thanks to all of the team who worked on this. You all understood exactly what we wanted to communicate and why, and then managed to do it in a way that was far better than anything I could have imagined. I’m a bit choked up to be honest!”

Sarah Wright, Head of Communications and Campaigns — NEA

“Each time I work with the team, I am always stunned at the effort and creativity that goes into each detail and am always eager for the end result. The team is extremely accommodating and always provide a fresh approach to our projects that elevates our communications materials!”

Alana Khaytin, Communications Specialist — Braskem America

“What I really appreciate about Alive is that they work with us as partners, and care as much about getting it right for our patients as we do.”

Sara Langston, Patient Engagement & Marketing Manager — italk

“Alive are unique in how much they deeply listen and invest in you and your ideas. I have not come across a company that listens as much as they do to ensure your needs are understood and met (actually - they always exceed my needs and expectations). Everyone I recommend Alive to has an equally brilliant experience. When you work with Alive, you are not only getting some genius creativity brought into your life, you are also hanging out with some of the best examples of human beings I’ve ever known.”

Steph Tranter, Hybrid Exec Coach & Psychologist —

“Alive helped us create a video of our response to the floods of winter 2019. Our Chief Officer received messages from all round the country praising us for it and was really pleased with both the video and the response to it.”

Alexander Mills, Communications Manager — South Yorkshire Fire & Rescue

“Alive were professional, friendly and great to work with. Most importantly they were creative, helping us to bring an extremely important safety campaign to life.”

Jack Grasby — South Yorkshire Fire & Rescue

“The (Alive) team were able to creatively pull together and document (in just over 2minutes) everything our service has achieved over the last few months, from thousands of prescriptions deliveries to hundreds of phone calls made to the vulnerable. The final product was so powerful and reflective of what our service has and continues to achieve. It couldn’t have been better received within the service – thanks Alive for once again helping us to communicate our vision!’”

Emma Wright — South Yorkshire & Rescue

“We worked with the team at Alive to create our staff recognition video.
At a time like this, its never been more important to share the amazing work that our staff have done and continue to do on a daily basis under very difficult circumstances. We wanted to shout about this and recognise that when the time came, South Yorkshire Fire & Rescue stepped up to the plate. We didn’t want an ordinary thank you post on social media or a basic email sent out internally, we wanted something special. Enter Alive. ”

Emma Wright — South Yorkshire Fire & Rescue

“This looks amazing - brought a smile to my face scrolling through it :-)”

Jack Ford, Head of Marketing — streamGO

“Our company is fun, we have great brands, but most importantly we’re all about our people – and I wanted an agency who would understand that and help us bring it to life through our website and other comms. Straight away I felt that Alive ‘got’ us and provided the creative inspiration exactly where we needed it, as well as the technical expertise to deliver a well-functioning website.”

Keren McCarron, Head of Corporate Affairs & Communications — KP Snacks

Thank you so much. Incredible work done at incredible speed by incredible people.
Outstanding work as ever and what a turnaround. As for the concepts – wow. These are that good it would be an insult to describe them as just good. It’s a joke, quite frankly. This is exactly the Alive effect I was after. Right now I feel like I am living in an Alive With Ideas wonderland. Thank you!”

Jack Grasby, Campaigns Manager — SYFR

“If you are looking to improve creativity and build teamwork, I highly recommend a session like this for your team. No matter where you are in your creativity journey, a workshop like this can give your team a boost of energy and ideas to invigorate their creative thinking.”

Amy Lilja, IC Manager — Hennepin Healthcare

“Alive were there to help when we were working every hour to respond to the coronavirus outbreak. They gave us the creativity, ideas and support we needed to deliver campaigns which empowered our residents in the most difficult time most of us have ever seen, personally and professionally. The team understood what we needed, worked closely with us and delivered fast without any compromise on quality. Working with Alive has been a joy in the darkest of times and I have no doubt will have helped to save lives. Thanks team x”

Julie Odams, Assistant Director of Communications & Customers — Derbyshire County Council

“We got 'Alive' involved to help us shift mindsets across our organisation and they delivered! Using simple, clear and creative ideas the team have delivered us a campaign which has seen a dramatic increase in idea sharing and development. They’ve also played a significant role in creating a culture of shared success. I wouldn’t hesitate to work with again, in fact, we already are!”

Gavin Buckle — B&Q
Alive logo