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!