The Infamous “White Lie” in PR

March 6, 2018

Headlines from the White House over the last few days have focused primarily on one key player in the Trump administration – 29-year-old former communications director Hope Hicks. Her relatively low-key profile took an abrupt about-face once Hicks admitted to telling the occasional “white lie” in testimony to the House Intelligence Committee. To add fuel to the media fire, she abruptly resigned after dropping the bombshell, although rumor has it that plan was in the works weeks ahead of her interview with the House.

Beyond further solidifying mistrust in this administration, Hicks’ confession has also stirred up an age-old misconception about PR’s inner workings, painting the picture that as PR professionals, we sit around cooking up ways to spin the facts or in this case, cover them up. The truth is, Hicks lacked the tools and training to have best served both her client and the public. If she did have that background, she would have known that when it comes to the ugly truth, the best route is to face it, not bury it. Just as the gory details of every notable cover-up in history can confirm — the truth always comes out

Perhaps a lack of proper credentials to support the hefty title put on the former model (who had no previous political or PR background), is what led her to tell “white lies” to the media. Or maybe it’s simply a crooked moral compass, but one thing is certain — there’s no place for blatant dishonesty in public relations.

When it comes to addressing difficult issues with the public, having a solid crisis communications plan in place is a must. At a high level, this involves acknowledging your mistake (not burying it), issuing a genuine apology (no tongue in cheek) and outlining the steps you and your company will take to ensure it doesn’t happen again (aka your community promise). The public is much more forgiving of someone strong enough to own up to their mistakes, versus pointing the finger at someone else or pretending those mistakes didn’t happen — practices that will earn a one-way ticket to our next round-up of end-of-year PR Fails.

While Hicks certainly made more than one mistake during her White House tenure, let’s outline the big no-no’s of her ‘white lies’ debacle, just for fun:

  • Refusing to answer questions – According to the New York Times, Hicks “pointedly and repeatedly declined to answer questions”, on top of having her lawyer issue a decline to comment, all actions which are now public and don’t make anyone in the situation appear innocent.
  • Downplaying the issue – Referring to her actions as “white lies” is an insult to public intelligence, particularly when it’s in regards to arguably the most powerful person in the world. Downplaying an issue, especially one that carries a lot of weight, won’t earn the public’s sympathy. Instead, it has the adverse effect and causes people to want to dig deeper for the truth.
  • Offering no explanation – Offering no explanation for actions taken and giving shallow answers effectively opens up the narrative for others to tell the story. People have a tendency to let their imaginations run rampant, so it’s best to tell the facts, control the story and divert the conversation to how the issue will be resolved to ensure it doesn’t happen again.
  • Putting the wrong people in charge – Just kidding, but not really. Make sure the person leading communications and serving as a critical public face is certified for the job. It will eliminate a lot of headaches.

Who’s next in line for the communications director in Trump’s White House? Lucky number five, whoever they are, is sure to be a brave soul and, hopefully, much better equipped for the job.

– Laura

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