Dear White House: Do you understand what crisis management is?

5 January 2018

Dear White House: Do you understand what crisis management is?

Image credit: Michael Vadon (Flikr) – CC BY-SA 2.0

Crises are almost unavoidable when under the scrutiny of the public eye. People will always be offended by something, an action will always be interpreted differently, and accidents will always happen. It will always be a struggle for public entities and high-profile individuals to build and maintain trust. All that can be done is to plan for foreseeable scenarios, and draw from previous experience to resolve unforeseen problems as they arise.

A crisis is usually not the end of the world, but it could be if it is responded to badly. It is how a crisis is handled that will in large part determine the extent of the damage inflicted.

Donald Trump’s presidency has been turbulent at best, marred by countless public relations crises, but the latest episode involving Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House is being spectacularly mismanaged.

What is the issue?

American journalist Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury draws from over 200 interviews with the President and his inner circle. It allegedly provides a comprehensive look into the operation of the White House under Trump and makes bold claims which reflect unfavourably on the President and his administration.

Some of the purported revelations offered by the book include that:

  • according to claims made by former Chief Strategist Steve Bannon, the President knew of his son’s meeting with a Russian lawyer during the 2016 Presidential Election;
  • Ivanka Trump has presidential aspirations;
  • no one in the Trump campaign expected to win the election;
  • Mr Trump was bored learning about the US Constitution by the Fourth Amendment; and
  • the President holds his inner circle in low esteem.

While the media is using the term “explosive” to describe these so-called revelations, for many these findings will only reinforce their opinions and confirm suspicions.

But for the Trump Administration it is concerning, and it has made it worse by responding the way it did.

Mr Trump wasted no time in issuing a statement that said Steve Bannon had “lost his mind” when he was relieved of his position as Chief Strategist.

White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said on Thursday:

“[T]here are numerous mistakes, but I’m not going to waste my time or the country’s time going page by page, talking about a book that’s complete fantasy and just full of tabloid gossip, because it’s sad, pathetic, and our administration and our focus is going to be on moving the country forward.”

Mr Trump’s personal lawyer Charles Harder wrote a cease and desist letter (PDF) to the book’s author and its publisher, Henry Holt & Co, in an attempt to halt the book’s publication. Part of the letter, obtained by Variety, reads:

“Your publication of the false/baseless statements about Mr Trump gives rise to, among other claims, defamation by libel, defamation by libel per se, false light invasion of privacy, tortious interference and contractual relations, and inducement of breach of contract.”

Mr Harder also sent a cease and desist letter to Mr Bannon.

It has since been announced that the book will be released early despite the President’s efforts to stop its publication.

Not only is the book being published ahead of schedule, the botched job of “controlling” the issue has only generated more interest and escalated it to crisis point (see also: Streisand effect). It gives the impression, true or not, that the White House has something to hide and is actively attempting to censor the work of a journalist.

What should have happened?

The first step should have been to appear unconcerned. The President continues on with whatever it is he actually does, and leaves the Press Secretary to make a strategic response. The response needs to reinforce the strength and unity of the Administration and deny the claims made in the book, while appearing nonchalant.

Secondly, open the White House up by sending out images which show the President and members of his inner circle smiling or working hard together to reaffirm the image that there is no tension or dysfunction. Make the public feel as though they have a window into the Oval Office. It is not enough to deny the claims, there needs to be evidence — or at least something that looks like evidence.

Lastly, allow the book to burn out and do not fuel the flames whatsoever. The book will burn out because, for the most part, it is based on interviews with Steve Bannon, whose reputation is highly questionable given his political views, the fact that he was fired and his relationship with far-right news site, Breitbart News.

If executed correctly, the image of the White House portrayed by Michael Wolff would have contradicted what the White House is showing the public. Appearing unconcerned would assist in having people doubt the factuality of the book, which would be boosted by the reliance on Steve Bannon as a source.

Unfortunately for Trump, the fundamental incompetence of his administration when it comes to public relations and crisis management strategies will only exacerbate the conspicuous cracks in the Government of the United States.