National Press Club

“Always be honest with the press,” Communicators Summit hears

November 15, 2016 | By Julia Haskins |

Communications experts spanning a range of industries gathered at the National Press Club Tuesday for the annual Communicators Summit to discuss the role of crisis communications in politics and media.

Former Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter (D) led the first session reading an open letter to President-elect Donald Trump (R), slamming him for divisive campaign rhetoric and proposed policies that would harm marginalized groups of people. Nutter implored Trump to “ask the American public for forgiveness -- not from a teleprompter -- but from [his] head, heart and soul.” He further urged Trump to consider his language, presidential appointments and the impact of his policies going forward.

Nutter then talked about navigating crisis communications during two pivotal moments in his mayoral career: the deadly derailment of an Amtrak train in 2015 and the beginning of the recession. In both crises, Nutter said he aimed to be as transparent as possible, especially as a public figure whom people look to for guidance in difficult situations. He said he relayed all the information that he could at the time and did not make any unsubstantiated claims.

“Always be honest with the press,” Nutter said. “They will excuse a mistake. They will not excuse dishonesty.”

During the second session, Tom McMahon, vice president of advocacy and public affairs for the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International and member of the NPC Board of Governors, moderated a panel of communicators and journalists who discussed how both groups handle communications in times of crisis.

As the former president of the National Press Club, POLITICO Pro deputy technology editor Angela Greiling Keane has experience in the realms of both communications and journalism. But no matter where one stands, “the truth is key to both sides,” she said. Greiling Keane said communicators need to make information accessible to journalists, and reporters must be responsible for making the proper media contacts within organizations.

Ray Suarez, broadcast journalist and former host of Al Jazeera America’s Inside Story, also stressed the importance of cooperation between communicators and journalists. It behooves both parties to work together, he said, noting that when “managing a crisis, an informed reporter is more useful to [a communicator] than an uninformed reporter.” He said collaboration does not necessarily harm communicators, but rather, helps them tell their stories more effectively.

It’s not just journalists and communicators who need to work together. Organizations must also establish trust with the public so that their efforts are well received in the event of a crisis, said Gordon Lambourne, communications consultant for G5 Communications and former senior vice president-global public relations for Marriott.

However, companies tend to exaggerate the magnitude of their communications crises, said Eric B. Dezenhall, crisis management consultant, author and founder of Dezenhall Resources.

“There’s a difference between a communications problem and a conflict,” he said, but “time and time again, companies over-respond” to issues that don’t call for major action. Dezenhall said companies should be prepared for critics to accuse them of “mismanaged communications” and to accept that they won’t be lauded for apologizing.

National Journal White House correspondent George E. Condon wrapped up the event with a keynote discussion about crisis communications during the election. He said that while both Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton managed their communications poorly, Clinton’s campaign attempted to rectify its missteps.

But the “Trump campaign completely ignored press questions,” Condon said, “and when they did answer ... it was almost always lies.”

He acknowledged that Trump’s unconventional campaign may have resonated with his supporters, but Condon expressed doubt that Trump’s personality will transfer smoothly from candidate to commander in chief. However, he doesn’t predict that Trump will change his ways.

“I fully expect him to keep operating the way he is,” Condon said. “I just think you’re going to see a different public reaction.”

While news organizations have received backlash for coverage of the presidential candidates, Condon said the media don’t carry blame for failing to show Trump’s true colors.

“No one can argue that American newspapers did not tell people who Trump was, what he stood for and what he’s done,” Condon said.