Don't lose your head in the dog days of August

PR has shown no signs of slowing down this summer, but the cloying heat of August seems to have led some communicators to completely lose the plot.

Photo credit: Getty Images.
Photo credit: Getty Images.

Every week brings a new slate of communications faux pas that almost beggar belief but this week has been a doozy by anyone’s standards.

Consider the following four incidents from the last few days:

Cuomo flubs presidential run before he gets started

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo thought it would be a good idea to say "America was never that great" in an obviously preplanned "presidential" speech to a Fighting for New York Women and Girls event that drew audible gasps immediately from the audience in the room and was later eviscerated on social and other media by everyone from President Trump to gubernatorial rival Cynthia Nixon to Republican challenger Marc Molinaro. His comments were clearly meant to be more nuanced than that bald statement, but anyone with an ounce of basic communications expertise should have known how that soundbite would play in isolation. Cuomo’s press secretary Dani Lever had to walk back the comments later that afternoon by saying, "The Governor believes America is great and that her full greatness will be fully realized when every man, woman, and child has full equality. America has not yet reached its maximum potential." But by that time the court of public opinion had decided its verdict.

PRSA defines PR people as princesses

The PRSA in its infinite wisdom decided to parlay up something it activated at a couple of events at Disney properties and post a quiz on social media posing the question "What PR princess are you?" The trade body for PR pros asked respondents to answers questions such as "What is your favorite thing about PR/comms?" and "What is the most important quality you look for in a boss?" Depending on their answers, they were assigned personas such as the "Curious PR Princess" or the "Assertive PR Princess" (which is what I got when I took the quiz). But the lack of context about the Disney connection in the bare social media environment not unsurprisingly led to accusations that the quiz was "derogatory, unsophisticated, and old school." What was supposed to simply "entertain and engage" caused uproar and outrage among women who prefer to be perceived as PR professionals rather than PR princesses. The PRSA then compounded things by going for the non-apology apology of "We’re sorry if you were offended by the PR Princess quiz", rather than simply saying sorry for a tone-deaf activation. What with everything else going on at the trade group it should be an interesting annual conference in Austin, TX in October.

Sarah Huckabee Sanders lies on the dais

The embattled White House press secretary issued a rare apology after making a false statement about black employment at a press conference on Tuesday, having been incorrectly briefed by the White House Council of Economic Advisers. She wrongly said President Trump has created three times as many jobs for black workers as President Obama did. The answer came during a Q&A with the press about whether the President had ever used a racist slur. In the same conference, Sanders refused to rule out the possibility that a tape exists of President Trump using the N-word. Trump insists he doesn’t use it, but on this occasion his press secretary wasn’t prepared to go to war on his behalf. One senses that Sanders' previously inpenetrable Teflon shell is starting to be tested beyond its shelf life after 13 tempestuous months fronting an unprecedently high-profile and controversial presidency. It would not be surprising if rumors of her leaving the press secretary post by the end of the year turned out to be true. An 18-month stint in this role is considered long enough in most administrations - it has to feel like a lifetime working for President Trump.

Concerns rise about Elon Musk’s mental wellbeing

The charismatic but increasingly controversial co-founder and CEO of Tesla, Elon Musk, has been in trouble over the summer due to his erratic Twitter trigger finger, and he attracted the attention of the SEC when he announced via the social utility that he was thinking of taking Tesla private and that he had funds in place. The bombshell caused the electric car manufacturer’s shares to be briefly suspended as this is not the way such fundamental market-moving announcements are supposed to be made. In an emotional hour-long interview with The New York Times on Thursday, Musk again did little to assuage the concerns of investors and analysts. He was apparently on the verge of tears several times during the phone interview and said this last year had been the most difficult and painful 12 months of his career. Musk also revealed that he typed and sent the latest offending tweet about taking Tesla private on his way to the airport. Tesla has a search out for a head of communications at the moment, but none of the senior PR pros I’ve chatted to about the role would touch it with a barge pole. And anyone who speaks to previous incumbents such as Simon Sproule and Ricardo Reyes – who went back for more after one initial stint in the demanding role – could get an insight into what the reality of trying to marshal the CEO’s and Tesla’s reputation involves. One thing’s for sure, the electric-car maker could sorely do with some serious communications advice at the moment – its share price was down more than 8% in the morning following Musk’s off-kilter Times interview.

The connecting thread through all four of these examples – and there are many others by the way – is that the skills of the PR pro in being able to offer smart communications counsel to politicians, entrepreneurs, brands, and businesses have never been more important.

One worrying aspect of the examples, however, is that some of them involve senior PR pros or trade groups representing the profession – and they really need to do better.

I know it’s the dog days of August and temperatures are hitting 90 degrees but, please, it is incumbent upon everyone to try to keep cool and not completely lose their basic common sense as Labor Day approaches and the industry kicks into warp speed for the last third of the year.

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