Crisis comms: Adding high-octane fuel to a towering Trump inferno

Written by Patrick Southwell

Trump *sighs and slaps hand to forehead*. I’ll be honest, this blog is going to be a little, tiny bit partisan. If you’re a Trump supporter look away now.

Great – now all of you are reading, I’ll begin…

Loath him or loath him, you can’t help but be drawn to news about the Donald. Not just because he’s the leader of the free world *weeps a bit*, but because it’s like watching a particularly dramatic car crash happen in slow motion.

We’re all guilty of standing agog, rubber-necking as his unstoppable Trump mobile of crudeness smashes into the immovable central reservation of normality, creating what might possibly be the longest bad joke in history. It’s mesmerising.

But nothing prepared us for his response to the publication of Fire and Fury, the book that’s spawned more badly-planned, late-night tweets than a drunken Toby Young.

It’s a textbook example of how reactive communications can do the exact opposite of what was intended, if indeed we can know what Trump intended with his claim of being “like, really smart”.

While there is always a case for being proactive in the face of an issue, this is a prime example of doing the wrong thing and adding a huge amount of weapons-grade fuel to a fire so hot and volatile that one misplaced gust of wind could take out half of Washington.

It’s true, in most cases, we will always advise clients to take on issues head-on; to grab hold of a story and lead the narrative calmly. If questions are asked, answer them. Or even better, be ahead of the issue and lead it yourself.

A great example of this is when in March 2016, tennis player, Maria Sharapova revealed proactively she had failed a drug test at the 2016 Australian Open. The key word in the sentence you just read was “revealed”. She didn’t “admit” to the failure, or have it dragged out of her kicking and screaming. She proactively revealed it and took control of the narrative from day one, thus smoothing her way back into the sport.

Trump on the other (small) hand, did the wrong thing. He proactively responded, but in such a (small) ham-fisted way that all he did was stoke up the issue and give huge credence to the claims in the book.

It’s fair to say that whatever he or the Whitehouse did in response to the exposé, it wasn’t going to be a good outcome, but perhaps he should have considered a few things. Firstly, perhaps he could have dismissed the book and used it as a way to pivot to more important issues? Or perhaps the Whitehouse could have played it down, while he focussed on more pressing matters?

It’s easy for me to stand on the remote side-lines over the Atlantic, far from any centre of US power, and say “I wouldn’t have done it like that”, but Trump’s failure to respond well to a calamity is something to behold.

In my mind, the best way to deal with crises is:

  1. Be prepared: know all the issues you may face, the responses you want to give, and the processes for getting that message out quickly
  2. Be proactive: say what you need to say quickly and decisively. Keep reiterating that in many ways while bridging to the stories that you want to address in the long-term
  3. Know when to shut-up

It seems number three is something Trump didn’t heed in his response over the weekend, genius that he is.

The question is, will he pay the price? A year has taught us that he probably won’t.