8 media relations lessons from the Senate impeachment trial

by | Feb 19, 2021 | Public Relations

The recently concluded Senate impeachment trial of former President Trump provided important lessons for PR pros regarding media interviews.

Lessons included:

Assertion #1: Whatever is said during an interview better be the complete truth because reporters will fact check your statements and if any are found to be inaccurate they will be exposed

Proof: Fact checkers for the New York Times reported on February 13 that “The three members of the former president’s legal team made a number of misleading or false claims about the events of Jan. 6, Antifa, the impeachment process and voter fraud.”

Lesson to be learned: The more important the story, the greater the fact checking.

Assertion #2: PR people should be exceedingly careful when arranging interviews for clients

Proof: Study articles by journalists and you’ll discover that like a box of mixed chocolates, reporters come in all flavors. There are reporters who will write what a client says accurately; there are reporters who will deliberately edit remarks to fit an agenda; there are reporters who will use client’s remarks to fill out another article or TV piece they are working on; there are reporters who will use a client’s remarks in a newspaper or TV analysis report with scant mention of the person who was interviewed; there are reporters who use a client’s remarks to strengthen a position that the journalist already believes; and there are reporters who will deliberately take comments out of context in order to prepare a more exciting report. Taking statements out of context was also a tool of the impeached Trump’s attorneys when they tried to equate the use of the word “fight” by Democratic politicians in speeches to the use of the word “fight” by Trump on the day he told his supporters to march to the Capitol.

Lesson to be learned: Before pitching or agreeing to a request from a journalist to interview a client, the PR person should do some basic homework: Research the journalist’s past reports to determine the types of stories that have been done, and also the publications or TV show that reporters works for.

Assertion #3: As with statements made by PR people or clients, misleading B-roll can lead to negative coverage

Proof: The taped presentation by Trump’s lawyers trying to compare the use of the word “fight” by Democrats to the use of the same word by Trump resulted in negative coverage because the remarks were taken out of context. An Associated Press story said in part, ‘The defense team vigorously denied on Friday that Trump had incited the deadly riot and said his encouragement of followers to “fight like hell” at a rally that preceded it was routine political speech. They played a montage of out-of-context clips showing Democrats, some of them senators now serving as jurors, also telling supporters to “fight,” aiming to establish a parallel with Trump’s overheated rhetoric.”

Lesson to be learned: Young PR people should remember that the most important element in securing a TV interview is the strength of the story. Most TV interviews are conducted without B-roll.

Assertion #4: PR people should always advise clients to not disparage others because it will usually result in a rebuttal and the truth will come out

Proof: The lawyers defending Trump made personal attacks on the veracity of what Democratic House managers said. They made outright false statements that were evident to anyone watching the proceedings, and took House managers remarks out of context and as was reported in news stories they misquoted remarks and they attacked the “biased” news media.

Lesson to be learned: Various news reports said the Trump’s lawyers presented false and misleading information about the riots. Two examples: The New York Times reported that, “Many claims were echoes of right-wing talking points popularized on social media or ones that were spread by Mr. Trump himself.” CNN reported Trump’s lawyers “made multiple false and misleading claims to bolster their case.” Rebuttals to Trump’s lawyers’ allegations came from various sources—the Democratic House Managers, journalists, the news media, and indirectly from GOP Senator Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who strongly condemned Trump in a post-trial speech.

Assertion #5:  PR people must strongly advise clients how easy it is for a journalist to check the veracity of statements

Proof: Trump lawyer Michael van der Veen tried to misled the senators about GOP Sen. Tommy Tuberville’s comments re his telephone conversation with Trump regarding former vice-president Pence being led to safety from the Senate on January 6, as something “heard the night before at a bar somewhere.”

Proof: Sen. Tuberville stood by his account that he told then-President Donald Trump that Vice President Mike Pence was being evacuated from the Senate during the Capitol riot.

Lesson to be learned: People will defend their comments if they are misquoted or taken out of context making the deceiver look bad.

Assertion #6: Clients should be told that any statement might have legs

Proof: Remarks cited by the House Managers that were made months ago by Trump and his defenders were used in their presentation and reported in news stories.

Lesson to be learned: PR people should warn clients not to make controversial statements. They can be revived at any time.

Assertion #7: It’s not only remarks made to journalists that can end up in news stories

Proof: Remarks by GOP Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, about a heated conversations between GOP House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and the defeated President Trump about the storming of the Capitol on January 6, that she retold days earlier in a Town Hall meeting, ended up as part of the Democratic House Managers presentation and received major media coverage

Lesson to be learned: PR people should remind clients that once a remark is made it is fair game for journalists to be used in the future no matter where the comments were made. They should emphasize to clients that any remark might end up in future media coverage.

Assertion #8: If a story is considered major by the media there is no shelve limit to when it becomes stale

Proof: The Boeing 737 MAX story continues to make headlines despite it being more than two years old. An example closer to the Trump Senate trial is the resignation by President Nixon in 1974which continues to be incorporated into news articles. Like the previous examples, the Senate impeachment trial of former President Trump will not only be forever mentioned in history books but as new facts emerge it will provide it with legs for years to come as a breaking news story.

Lesson to be learned: Once an individual or entity is involved in a PR crisis, it becomes part of its DNA and can be revived by the media forever.

Perhaps the two most important media lessons that PR pros should learn from the Senate impeachment trial are 1) to impress upon clients to never exaggerate or lie to the media, because if the lie is exposed journalists will forever be suspicious of anything the client says, and 2) that when dealing with a PR crisis every crisis needs original thinking, because unlike clothes, there is no one size fits all solution to a PR crisis.

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Arthur Solomon
Arthur Solomon, a former journalist, was a senior VP/senior counselor at Burson-Marsteller, and was responsible for restructuring, managing and playing key roles in some of the most significant national and international sports and non-sports programs. He also traveled internationally as a media adviser to high-ranking government officials. He now is a frequent contributor to public relations publications, consults on public relations projects and is on the Seoul Peace Prize nominating committee. He can be reached at arthursolomon4pr@juno.com or artsolomon4pr@optimum.net.

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