How to Prevent a PR Crisis, Trump-Style

There are plenty of lessons for PR and marketing professionals to learn from modern campaigns and politicians. Unfortunately, many of these lessons are what not to do.

The recent media coverage of Donald Trump, Jr.’s meetings with Russian lobbyists, and his disastrous response to the revelation of that meeting, provides another such lesson.

Out of respect to tradition, here are four ways to prevent a PR crisis that every communicator – political, corporate, nonprofit or otherwise – can learn from Donald Trump, Jr.

Don’t keep secrets. They won’t survive.  

In today’s digital world, there are no secrets. Or at least none that will stay secret for long. Between emails, text messages, slack chats, social media, CCTV, home security cameras, cell phone videos, hackers, cloud storage, and even building security keycards, we are a digitally connected world.

With those digital connections come trails, breadcrumbs, paths and, you guessed it – the eventual potential for disclosure. Whether you have your emails stored on a private server, are way too liberal with your Twitter account, or simply think you can not report meetings with Russian attorneys, there is a trail. Do not expect to keep that trail covered forever.

As a child I was told by my grandmother to never say anything that I wouldn’t want my parents (or Jesus) to hear. These days, your parents, voters, customers, prospects, clients have dozens of eyes, ears, and noses just waiting to pick up your trail. Want to prevent a PR crisis? Don’t keep secrets.

Transparency is the best way to prevent a PR crisis.

The old saying “the cover up is worse than the crime” certainly holds true now more than ever. With virtually everything we do having digital documentation of some kind, there is simply no good reason to not tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

Donald Trump, Jr.’s revelation that he actually did meet with the Russians, and then the additional revelation that there were more people in the room than he first revealed, is a good example of how not to be transparent.

Jared Kushner is likewise taking credibility hits because of his apparent amnesia over the 100 meetings with agents of foreign governments that he is now reporting on his security clearance form.

These were clear, easy issues that could have been put to bed from a PR perspective, had they just been managed with transparency. Rarely are brands damaged over one mistake or gaffe. It’s the constant flow of new revelations and contradictions that erode trust (and also attract prosecutorial attention.)

Transparency isn’t always easy, but it sure helps in preventing a PR crisis. Transparency is definitely better than trying to explain a lie, or defend an obstruction of justice charge. The truth will eventually come out, and you want to be on the right side of it.

Have a credible message, and keep everyone on it.

Once the Trump administration realized there was, in fact, a meeting with Thing 2, (er, Don Jr.) and the Russians, there were a myriad of clumsy responses, most of which were neither credible nor truthful.
The original one was,

“We never met with the Russians.”

FALSE. Following the Veselnitskaya revelation, the responses started rolling in:

“We didn’t know it was a problem.”

Wrong. Paul Manafort is a campaign pro and knew good and well they shouldn’t be meeting with foreign governments about the campaign.

“There was no information about the campaign exchanged.”

Undetermined. We then found out there were more people in the meeting. What did they discuss? Trust is starting to break down now, so we can’t really be sure, can we?

“My son is a good person, and I think anyone would have taken that meeting.”

Wrong. Points for family loyalty, but a CEO, C-suite executive, or campaign principal would not have taken that meeting.

Instead, had the entire White House stuck to a single, transparent, credible message, we wouldn’t be seeing the media feeding frenzy continue at such a voracious intensity.

When the proverbial doo-doo hits the fan, get all your people on the same page. Build a transparent, truthful, and credible message, and stick to it. Not only will you tell the truth, you’ll also avoid future problems.

To prevent a PR crisis from getting worse, just shut up. 

If your company or your client can’t commit to being totally transparent and take the time to get your facts straight before going public, then for the love of credibility keep your mouth shut until you can. That may not prevent a PR crisis, but it darn sure keeps it from getting worse.

The worst thing that Donald Trump, Jr. could have done was to go on television with Fox TV’s Sean Hannity and say, definitely, that there was nothing more to the Russian lawyer story.

Because the very next day, multiple sources revealed that there WAS more to the story, in fact there were more people in the story. One or perhaps two more people in the room with Trump, Jr. to be precise. It appears now that another Russian was in the room who had ties to the Russian government counter-intelligence service!

After this, the storyline turns from “what was said in the meeting” to “what else is Donald, Jr. lying about.”
In other words, the narrative is not about facts and substance, it’s about basic credibility and honesty – and that is when you get into real questions of trust in your brand.

If you can’t or won’t be fully transparent, just shut up until you can or will.

There’s nothing new in these lessons. In fact, they’re pretty time-tested. I continue to be amazed at brands, organizations, CEOs and politicians who forget them.
Maybe my grandmother can visit them from the afterlife and give them a good talking-to.