Two years ago, I humbly gave advice to incoming White House Communications Director Mike Dubke. A real pro, Dubke lasted just a few months in the job. On Friday, the sixth and latest White House communication director, Bill Shine, resigned and was exiled to Trump’s 2020 campaign in what the NY Times described as a face-saving move.
Back in 2017, my advice to Dubke focused on how he should do his job, hopeful he could make a difference for the administration. Today, my advice is blunt for anyone considering succeeding Shine – please do not take the job. I am asking this on behalf of the profession we share.
It’s distressing to have to give this advice. Effective communication is enormously important to the success of any enterprise. But only when leaders genuinely want to connect with people and inform them on policies, beliefs, and actions. Based on its actions, this does not appear to be the aim of this White House.
As my friend Eliot Mizrachi at Page told me recently: “Informing the public isn’t optional, especially for government. Stakeholders cannot be engaged in a meaningful way if they are not informed. This is as true of citizens as it is of employees, investors or consumers.”
The current approach in Washington is terrible for the country. Without a belief in facts and processes that discover them, such as science and journalism, we are adrift, susceptible to the deceptions of demagogues.
It is also bad for the public relations profession. Those of you who do not work in our field, please know that what you see from some politicians today is not the work of professional communicators. The people that I work with in PR believe in advocating for the common good, telling the truth, and in fact-based discussions even when the facts are not convenient to your cause.
Disdain for truth is setting a bad example. In my crisis class at Boston University, I tell students to follow up with journalists when the information being requested isn’t immediately available.
“Sarah Sanders doesn’t,” said one student of the White House press secretary.
The only response to this is to say, in a non-political way, that Sanders is a political operative with a communicator’s title. In fact, of the six communications directors to date (in two years), only Dubke, and Jason Miller, who resigned before he started, had any meaningful communication experience before taking on the top communication job at the White House.
That’s a bad fit for a White House that appears to know or care little about what communicators do or what they can achieve. Shine reportedly fell out of favor because coverage of the president did not improve during his tenure and because NBC News asked Ivanka Trump a tough question in an interview.
Not even the best communicators can spin gold from straw (and, by the way, when you are “spinning,” you are not doing your job). It’s hard to turn down a great opportunity like White House communication director. But think first about your credibility, especially for a job that likely to be more about saying “yes” than being a trusted adviser. It’s the right thing for anyone serious about the work we do.