Hey Mooch: you're not meant to be the story

The new White House communications director has made an immediate mark in a totally unorthodox way that isn't making anyone think of PR in a more positive light after the Sean Spicer experience.

SkyBridge Capital founder Anthony Scaramucci speaks at the 2016 SkyBridge Alternatives "SALT" Conference at the Bellagio Resort & Casino in Las Vegas (Image via Wikimedia Commons, By Jdarsie11 - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w

"They need a good, strong communications director who isn’t necessarily interested in being quoted in the media all the time but who is eager to get the job done."

The words of former White House communications director for President Clinton and now Burson-Marsteller worldwide CEO Don Baer on The PR Week podcast earlier this year.

"Part of what makes someone good in that job is understanding that they’re not competing with the president or other voices, they’re trying to bring some sense of cohesion to what’s going on."

Baer was quick to note that he was in the White House role 20 years ago and things have obviously changed a lot since then. And the Trump administration came to power on an avowedly non-conformist agenda with the ambition of "draining the swamp" of established DC ways of doing things.

But noone who has watched with incredulity the way Anthony Scaramucci has warmed to his task as new White House communications director over the past week, starting with blowing a kiss to the assembled media at his introductory press briefing last Friday, could ever describe his approach to the role in Baer’s terms.

The showbiz-style entrance of "the Mooch" into the White House playpen finally prompted embattled press secretary Sean Spicer to hang up his spurs and take his leave of the situation.

As a long-time ally of chief of staff Reince Priebus, having Scaramucci on the scene was the final straw for Spicer, and deputy Sarah Huckabee Sanders stepped up into the press secretary role in his stead.

The Mooch took aim at his West Wing rival Priebus several times over this extraordinary week, saying "Reince is a fucking paranoid schizophrenic, a paranoiac," in an interview with New Yorker reporter Ryan Lizza published Thursday.

Up until last week Priebus had managed to block any appointment of the combative former Wall Street financier in the administration, but now all bets were clearly off.

Baer calls the White House chief of staff "the second-most-important job in America" after the president. "Based on my experience, it’s also the hardest job," he added. It’s certainly looking that way this week, with Priebus smarting at the fact that Scaramucci reports directly to President Trump rather than, as is traditionally the case, into the chief of staff.

Scaramucci’s foul-mouthed, ill-informed rant to Lizza, which for some reason the Mooch clearly thought was off the record, will certainly go down as a low point in communications practice.

It was almost beyond parody and reminded me of Malcolm Tucker, the fictional director of communications for the UK government in the BBC’s political satire The Thick of It (health warning: if you are of a nervous disposition or offended by curse words please don’t click on the link, and it is definitely NSFW without headphones.)

The Mooch said he "made a mistake in trusting a reporter" and "it won't happen again," to which  Lizza justifiably responded to CNN: "He needs to learn a little bit about what it means to be communications director and how to interact with reporters."

Sanders was left to pick up the pieces, telling a White House reporter: "Anthony is a passionate guy and has made it pretty clear that sometimes he has let that passion get the better of him. I don’t anticipate he will do it again."

When Baer appeared on our podcast, the communications director and press secretary jobs were both being handled by Spicer, a situation Baer described as "impossible." In his tenure under Clinton, the press role was handled by Mike McCurry and the two of them had a very good relationship.

The functions are very different. McCurry summed it up at the time as follows: "Baer, you’re in product development, I’m in sales."

Baer explained that the press secretary stands up, gives the briefings, and gets their name in the paper a lot because they are commenting on things, or giving reporters information on background that appears anonymously.

The communications director job is very different and, Baer believes, not well understood. Its existence in name only really dates back to the Nixon administration, though people played similar roles before that. It has traditionally been a planning and strategy job.

"The natural order of the universe is chaos, and that is undeniably true in any White House and any national government," said Baer. "The only way to avoid the chaos is for there to be a lot of intentional strategic planning and work towards where are we headed, what are our messages as we head in those directions, and how are we going to discipline the chaos to keep it moving forward."

At the time, the Trump administration was in its very early days, and Baer put the chaos down to the fact "they don’t have their routines in place in terms of who’s doing what and how they all understand what’s going on."

In modern communications, and especially in the White House, he noted that events happen fast and things can roll in a different direction quickly. "You can think you knew something 20 minutes ago and things can have changed," said Baer.

He speculated that a lot of the chaos was down to competing factions and that "everything that happens in the White House is intentional, except everything that’s not." "There’s a lot of plotting and planning and conspiracy, and there’s a lot of chaos that just happens," he added.

Every PR pro is taught they are not supposed to become the story, but that concept just doesn’t seem to be common currency in the Trump White House. For a short while they had the more understated presence of Mike Dubke as communications director, but he only lasted three months.

The Washington Post described Dubke’s appointment as "President Trump reaching outside his circle of trusted campaign aides to try to bolster his messaging operation." But though he ticked the "behind the scenes" box he never acquired any influence within the viciously competitive circle of Trump loyalists, or indeed with the President himself.

This post has seemingly been jinxed from the start since Jason Miller, senior comms adviser on the Trump election campaign, was set to become White House communications director but stepped aside a few weeks before Inauguration Day "to spend more time with his family."

Now Scaramucci is trying to plug the leaks in the White House in a showboating game of whack-a-mole that is surely destined to fail and will only produce more of what he is attempting to stem.

What is required is a sense of stability and credibility that the communications team and other White House staffers can get behind and believe in - then the leaks will reduce organically.

The Mooch's erratic showing over the past week shows the search for a "good, strong communications director who isn’t necessarily interested in being quoted in the media all the time" continues - at an administration Baer characterized on The PR Week podcast as the least-well-organized and most-chaotic he can remember.

Not a lot has changed since he said this, though it’s clear the Mooch is definitely not going to be the person to fit that strategic, behind-the-scenes job profile that can rally the troops and start to build a consensus.

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