The Trump administration is, to borrow the president’s description of his own attorney general, beleaguered. It hasn’t had a win since confirming Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. President Trump’s approval ratings are historically low.
I worked in crisis communications, so I’ve been in the trenches working with a lot of beleaguered companies — businesses facing a tidal wave of bad press, lawsuits, and federal investigations. In successful crisis communications campaigns, the companies get over themselves, stop complaining about unfair media coverage, and get to the hard work fixing underlying problems, while putting together a clear message.
Those companies know complaining about unfair media coverage is for the weak-willed. It’s for the undisciplined. More aggressive people might even say it’s for sensitive. For snowflakes. When the going gets tough, the tough get going. They don’t complain about what’s unfair.
To say that President Trump complains about the fake news media is an understatement. As of today, he has tweeted the phrase "fake news" over 75 times as President. He’s railed against the "failing New York Times" and the "Amazon Washington Post."
Trump has called the press the "enemy of the American people." He’s tweeted about the media being unfair more than any individual policy goal — be it building a wall, healthcare, or rebuilding infrastructure.
Here’s the thing. Every high-profile person or organization thinks the media is unfair. No one likes having their biggest mistakes and their tiniest missteps broadcast to the world. No one likes having every action scrutinized. It’s stressful.
People inevitably see the world from their own point of view, and are upset when their point of view isn’t the dominant narrative. But harping on "unfairness" only distracts from the hard work of fixing problems.
So what should the president do instead of complaining about the media?
He should get his house in order. He needs to develop clear roles and responsibilities for his White House staff and his cabinet secretaries. He needs to give them specific objectives to achieve and check in frequently to make sure they are making good progress. To date, the White House is chaotic, with routine tasks being bungled.
He needs to dive in and really understand the policies he is championing. His lack of expertise on the healthcare bill, for instance, arguably doomed the bill’s chances. In theory, becoming an expert shouldn’t be difficult. The president, after all, has access to the foremost experts on every subject imaginable, all of whom are desperate to brief him. But he has to do the hard work of listening and participating in long, thorough meetings.
He needs to be more disciplined in what he says. By this point, he should understand that every time he brings up Russia, or former FBI Director James B. Comey, or Attorney General Jeff Sessions, his administration will be able to talk about nothing else for days, preventing any forward momentum on his priorities. He needs to simply stop talking about those subjects in public.
That’s not to say he shouldn’t talk about the progress he’s making. He should absolutely show off when he has true policy expertise. He should absolutely talk about progress the administration is making toward core objectives. Letting the public know about progress is one of the core tenets of successful crisis communications.
But first, the organization in crisis has to actually make that progress. If BP, for instance, wants to show how much its doing to clean up after the disastrous Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion, it needs to actually put money and time behind clean-up efforts. It doesn’t get to skip right to the progress report.
As I’ve argued before, this administration may yet turn things around – but that is going to take an admission that things aren’t going well and putting in the hard work to change.
A good first step would be for President Trump to stop complaining about the fake news and start doing his job. Complaining about fake news is a snowflake move.
Neal Urwitz is the Director of External Relations at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), a defense and national security think tank in Washington, D.C. He is an expert in media and congressional relations, having also worked for Fortune 500 companies on crisis communications and policy matters. He writes regular commentaries on the state of media in America. To read more of his reports, Click Here Now.
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