NEW YORK: President Trump made one of his trademark 180-degree comms turns last week, acknowledging he reimbursed an attorney who paid a porn star to be quiet in the weeks before the 2016 presidential election. However, crisis communications pros say that doesn’t resemble any advice they’d give a client.
Last Wednesday, Trump attorney and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani said on Fox News’ Hannity that Trump reimbursed attorney Michael Cohen for $130,000 the lawyer gave to porn actress Stephanie Clifford in return for signing a nondisclosure agreement.
Trump previously denied he knew about the payment, and Giuliani’s disclosure sparked a weekend’s worth of political headlines. The following day, he issued a clarification and sat for a handful of interviews, then spurred more headlines by appearing on Sunday morning talk shows.
Crisis and reputation comms pros said they are straining to see the wisdom behind Giuliani’s press tour and the White House’s approach.
"I would start by saying that good issues management and communications begins with having a strategy, and that strategy should be based on the facts," said Carreen Winters, chairman of reputation and chief strategy officer for MWWPR. "The flip flop of ‘I didn’t know anything about it’ to ‘I know about it’ fundamentally discredits him on this issue."
The U-turn indicated the Trump team thinks comms strategy only works one way, Winters added.
"It’s sort of like they are saying, ‘This is my message, la la la, I’m not listening to you.’ And there’s an expectation that the conversation is two-way," said Winters. "The ability to just disregard the two-way part of the conversation and just say what you want is actually really interesting. What we can predict is if it’s working out for him, he’ll stick to the message and if it’s not, he’ll change it."
It appears the White House inverted the old comms tactic of getting ahead of the story, said Ryan Toohey, senior MD of strategic communications at FTI Consulting.
"Where in normal issues management or crisis comms, if you know something bad is going to come out, the idea is to is get ahead of it," he said. "It seems like what they did is decide a month too late to get out ahead of stuff."
Toohey wondered if the president wasn’t deliberately causing confusion to change the discussion.
"Then the story isn’t the underlying facts," he said. "The story is the flip. The story is the change. Maybe that’s the trick. It’s the mind changing, it’s the distraction rather than the behavior."
Whether it’s brilliant gamesmanship or hamfisted reaction, Giuliani, said he was happy with the outcome.
"We’ve got everything kind of straightened out and we’re setting the agenda," he said in a Sunday Washington Post story.
Chris Allieri, founder and principal of Mulberry & Astor disagreed, adding that regardless of the strategy or what Giuliani said, it’s hard to see the last four days as a comms win for the White House.
"For me, it seems [Giuliani] was completely speaking out of turn," Allieri said. "He wasn’t speaking for the president. If you’ve done an interview and you’re a spokesperson on behalf of someone else and you have to follow it up with a statement, then it didn’t go well.
He’s supposed to help. Instead, this has created a whole wave of reporting from really respected political journalists, so I don’t know how this can be deemed a success."
And even if the stories are about the switch, the coverage is still negative, and not about the topics the administration would rather be discussing, said Dan Ren, SVP and strategic communications counselor at Levick.
"Surely, supporters of the president and those on the inside would love to talk about the roll back of regulation, the improving economy, lower taxes, and higher pay checks, but instead they frame a defensive narrative around a salacious story," he said. "People care about their paychecks and job security – issues Trump and his spokespeople can win on if they could only keep the focus there. They will be even more effective with ongoing consistency and honesty, too."