How PR Could Have Stopped the Comey Firing

In Chapter Five of World Class Communication, “Where’s the CCO?,” Virgil Scudder & I discussed the need for a Corporate Communications Officer who reports directly to the CEO of a company or head of an organization. The biggest reason?

“The public relations director…is the eyes and ears of the organization: the person who can best spot an opportunity for favorable publicity and act as the ‘canary in the coalmine,’ the person who can sense trouble before anyone else in the organization does.”

It is exactly this lack of a canary in the Trump Administration that led to all the chaos surrounding the firing of FBI Director James Comey.

A seasoned PR/comms person would have insisted that the timing could not be worse. The move would only raise suspicions that the president was nervous about the FBI’s investigation into ties between Russia and his campaign, and that any and all justification for firing Dir. Comey would be overshadowed. I suspect most PR professionals would have strongly advised against the timing, and manner, of firing Dir. Comey at this time.

According to the NY Times, at least one person in Trump’s inner circle voiced concerns. “The chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon, who has been sharply critical of the F.B.I., questioned whether the time was right to dismiss Mr. Comey, arguing that doing it later would lessen the backlash, and urged him to delay, according to two people familiar with his thinking.” Obviously, this advice was not heeded.

The Washington Post details how the communications side of the firing was botched (the pick-up headline in the print edition is “Media firestorm blindsided Trump’s communication team”). “Trump’s team did not have a full-fledged communications strategy for how to announce and then explain the decision. As Trump, who had retired to the residence to eat dinner, sat in front of a television watching cable news coverage of Comey’s firing, he noticed another flaw: Nobody was defending him.

“The president was irate, according to White House officials. Trump pinned much of the blame on Spicer and Dubke’s communications operation, wondering how there could be so many press staffers yet such negative coverage on cable news — although he, Priebus and others had afforded them almost no time to prepare.”

Every communicator has been thrust into having to explain or defend something his boss or client has said or done without warning. But a move like this, which would have been high profile even if everyone in the nation agreed with it, necessitated a thorough media plan and input from the communications team. The lack of communication with communications people on how to communicate the firing (apparently caused by Comey’s communications with the public) led to what is, as of this writing, 48 consecutive hours of wall-to-wall coverage.

Too many consider PR’s role to be limited to writing press releases, booking interviews, responding to media inquiries, and collecting news clips. True public relations work is letting the Executive Suite, or the Executive Branch, know how a story will be covered and how best to achieve the organization’s goals through the media. The Trump White House has given another textbook example of how not to handle a controversial decision.

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