Sean Spicer’s "redemption tour" bus broke down between Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, and Embarrass, Minnesota.
The former White House press secretary appears overly-eager to normalize his professional persona. Spicer’s first major stop on his journey to recover his reputation was Jimmy Kimmel Live!
Kimmel was remarkably gentle, perhaps for a reason he stated on his show the following night: "A certain part of me felt sorry for him."
Kimmel’s guest that night was his late-night competitor Stephen Colbert, who swiftly responded: "Really? Because he wasn’t apologizing. He wants to be forgiven, but he won’t regret anything he did. You’ve got to regret something you did to be forgiven."
Colbert’s observation is fundamental and the cause for Spicer’s bus overheating: Redemption requires contrition.
The Sixth Amendment of the Constitution entitles all citizens a right to legal representation and a fair trial. Our founding fathers did not also bestow upon on all persons the right to a public relations adviser and a good reputation.
Spicer remarked to Kimmel that strangers are going out of their way to thank him for his "service" as White House press secretary. The problem is that neither he, nor any communications professional, can separate themselves from the institutions they represent.
There is nothing noble in defending an unethical brand. Yet, I hear some in the field glorifying the roles they play in "spinning" a wayward client out of a crisis. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve taken on some outrageous cases, but only when one of the following conditions are met:
- The facts are being misrepresented i.e. the client is being treated unfairly.
- The client recognizes mistakes were made and wants to ensure they don’t happen again.
- The entity is aware of a looming issue and wants it handled properly.
Spicer has two choices: own that he was his authentic self during his time in the White House; or, show remorse and admit that he adopted a manipulative alter-ego.
What won’t work is a hybrid approach, which is unfortunately what all too many brands attempt. We saw such an example last week when NBA star Kevin Durant owned up beautifully to his disparaging tweets regarding his former team, only to see him undo all that good with an explanation that made no sense. I was yelling at my computer as I read his statement, "Go all the way man, you’re almost there."
On Spicer’s watch the natural tension between the White House and its press corps erupted into a toxic environment that did nothing to benefit the American people. Expecting the same media he attacked almost daily to quickly turn the page is completely unreasonable.
Making matters worse, Spicer’s cameo at the 69th Emmys was at best unfortunate. Spicer essentially rode his podium right into a trap brilliantly set by Colbert. Perhaps he calculated that his appearance would be considered self-deprecating; instead, it furthered his reputation as the guy who will say anything, facts be damned.
My frustration with the approach has nothing to do with Spicer, and everything to do with what it does to perpetuate the negative stereotype of our profession: shameless mouthpieces for those we serve.
As for humor, it can be a tremendous weapon in reputation recovery, especially when it’s at one’s own expense. In fact, I recommend that Chipotle get busy making jokes about its queso ASAP, e.g. "our guac experts just weren’t ‘cheesy’ enough to make good queso (you’re welcome Chipotle – that one’s free).
But for that approach to work there must be some ownership of what happened. Spicer has only said he regrets how he handled the media during that first press conference, while remaining unapologetic for any misrepresentations, which goes back to Colbert’s point on Kimmel’s show.
The press secretaries who worked for me over the years knew that their job was to serve as a liaison to the media, not to browbeat them into submission. Spicer was in an impossible position, but it was one he did not need to be in: he chose to accept that role.
Spicer will likely see a short-term boost in his speaking fees thanks to his appearances. As for redemption, it’s a destination he can eventually get to, but he’s currently on the wrong path.
Dan Hill is president of Hill Impact, a communications and public affairs firm headquartered in Washington, DC.