Every four years in the United States we become hopeful of the opportunity for change, encouraged by the thought of prosperity, and excited about the chance of a brighter future. In the PR world, however, we prepare for a full on battle.
Political PR is a battlefield unlike any other full of slander, libel, defamation, and a whole lot of crisis management. With today’s influx of technology and social media, crisis management has never been more important (especially surrounding the 2016 presidential election). While Olivia Pope may certainly make it look easy, “fixing” the problems that arise around the President of the United States is definitely not an easy feat.
This is where the Conflict Management Life Cycle comes in to play. It essentially arms PR professionals with the right tools to handle any crisis thrown their way. The cycle involves the proactive, strategic, reactive, and recovery phases (Wilcox, Cameron, Reber, & Shin, 2013). With this crisis communications model, we can prepare for battles before they even happen and recover effectively when they do (because let’s face it, crisis management is all about how you respond).
Meet Kellyanne Conway, the official Counselor to the President of the United States. After becoming the first woman to successfully manage a presidential campaign, President Trump promoted her to be his righthand person. As a top White House adviser, it is essentially her job to be informed and to act somewhat as a crisis manager/mediator when things go awry. However, when she recently appeared on Fox News for an interview to clear some rumors about recent happenings, she ended up landing herself in some hot water.
President Trump’s daughter, Ivanka Trump, had a clothing line sold in stores across the nation. After the recent election, Nordstrom as well as Neiman Marcus announced that they would no longer be carrying her merchandise due to “poor performance” (Winchel, 2017). Immediately President Trump lashed out on Twitter saying, that his daughter was “treated so unfairly” (Winchel, 2017). While retailers like Nordstrom have been insistent that the recent decision was not a political matter, but merely a regular performance check, Kellyanne Conway handled the situation poorly when answering questions about the issue on Fox News. “Go buy Ivanka’s stuff is what I would tell you. I hate shopping and I’m going to go get some myself today…I’m going to give a free commercial here: Go buy it today, everybody” (Winchel, 2017).
On any other day in normal PR it would be great to promote your client and their interests, but political PR is an entirely different ballgame.
In promoting Ivanka Trump’s clothing line, Kellyanne Conway violated some major ethical boundaries. It is both unethical and illegal for a government official to endorse any product or brand. The law states, “An employee shall not use his public office for his own private gain, for the endorsement of any product, service or enterprise, or for the private gain of friends, relatives, or persons with whom the employee is affiliated in a nongovernmental capacity” (Electronic Code of Federal Regulations, 2017). While Conway was supposed to be the one diffusing the subject, she only added fuel to the fire. As Beki Winchel would say, “Communicators risk creating a crisis—or exacerbating an ongoing firestorm—if they don’t watch what they say” (Winchel, 2017). The only comment from the White House came from press secretary Sean Spicer saying, “She has been counseled on that subject, and that’s it” (Reuters, 2017).
When looking at this conflict through the lens of the crisis communication model, the proactive phase would have been key in preventing this from happening in the first place. By monitoring industry trends and listening to the public, this situation could have been avoided; environmental scanning and issues tracking would help detect this early on before crisis communication was needed.
Knowing that she would inevitably be questioned about the issue in her interview, Conway could have been educated on the ethical regulations of what she could and couldn’t say. While she was only defending Ivanka’s clothing line, her new position no longer allows her to promote and endorse any one brand of merchandise, especially with the White House seal behind her. The reactive phase could be taken into account, however, after her comments were made. I think the White House could have responded more appropriately by taking greater initiative in responding to this serious situation; she’s a government official and she violated a law after all. By only saying that she was counseled on the matter, it dismisses the fact that she was not briefed before interviewing on simple regulations that accompany her job title. With people now questioning her job title more than ever, as well as talk of impeachment for Trump’s Twitter responses, this step of the cycle could have helped this issue before it escalated to crisis proportions (Wilcox, Cameron, Reber, & Shin, 2013).
Take note: While we can’t always be Olivia Pope, we can certainly be knowledgeable and informed using the crisis communication model to prepare for whatever crisis is thrown our way.
Electronic Code of Federal Regulations. (2017). Use of Public Office for Private Gain. (eCFR Publication No.2635.702). Washington, DC: U.S. Retrieved from http://www.ecfr.gov/cgi-bin/text-idx SID=444f6051a0f1e10b96aaad4a1ea8ce05&mc=true&node=pt5.3.2635&rgn= div5#se5.3.2635_1702
Reuters. (2017, February 9). White House Aide Kellyanne Conway ‘Counseled’ After Plugging Ivanka Trump’s Products. Fortune. Retrieved from http://fortune.com/2017/02/09/kellyanne-conway-congress-ethics-probe-ivanka-trump/
Wilcox, D. L., Cameron, G. T., Reber, B. H., & Shin, J. (2013). Think public relations. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.
Winchel, B. (2017, February 10). White House scrambles after Kellyanne Conway’s ethics misstep. PR Daily. Retrieved from https://www.prdaily.com/Main/Articles/White_House_scrambles_after_Kellyanne_Conways_ethi_22194.aspx
Image by Bethany Garcia