When Donald Trump rotated through his first press secretary, Sean Spicer, and then the communications director Anthony Scaramucci, the president no doubt had high hopes for a new morning in America, where he finally would get the media coverage he deserves.
But he keeps running up against two laws of communications physics.
Because while the science and art communications are complex (since it’s all about human beings), in everyday practice there are only two things that communications can do for any leader or organization.
One, communications can amplify who you are and what you’re doing.
Two, communications can help you define and become who you aspire to be.
This is bad news for Trump. He doesn’t actually want anyone to see who he really is and what he’s really doing. And he doesn’t aspire to become someone better than who he is now.
Watching the White House press team (past and present) contort themselves and their language to explain the unexplainable, I’ve been reminded of the communications principle that “good policies make good PR.” You can’t talk your way into a good reputation. It’s a lesson all communications professionals learn (often the hard way), whether we’re working in government, corporate or nonprofit organizations.
Consider the nicknames for the “comms” person responsible for “telling the story” of the leader or organization: megaphone, spin doctor, flack. They’re usually pejorative, the label applied in either frustration or mockery.
These labels are just softer forms of “liar.” Sometimes we communications professionals have earned the label. At those times, we’re doing professionally what most of us do as humans: trying to appear better than we are, to get more support or less criticism than we deserve.
What we learn from experience is that communications efforts never succeed in re-directing or masking. Communications mostly exposes what’s actually there—the first law of communications physics.
But the pain of that realization can present a rich opportunity. Strong communications pros ask themselves, What would our story be if we became who we aspire to be? This is how a communications team can inform not only the strategy of the leader but their moral compass—the second law of communications physics.
Here is where communications professionals earn their keep: by articulating what’s possible, and then suggesting the actions (and words) to move the administration, in this case, from here to there.
There are real-world and real-human limitations to this approach, of course: the character of the leader, and the presence (or lack) of aspiration to something larger or nobler.
Each time the Trump team refreshes its press team (Sarah Huckabee Sanders now, someone else later), trust will matter—but not for the reasons you’d first imagine. A trustworthy press secretary is a good thing for a president not because reporters will necessarily believe her. It’s because reporters will listen to a trusted spokesperson for a few minutes longer than otherwise before they decide. They’ll allow a moment to hear the substance of the position.
But there’s the rub—substance. Trump’s press secretaries will always be working from deep in the hole their boss has dug. The goal of each new spokesperson cannot be to “generate good press,” because the President won’t have earned that. Their first goal instead must be establishing enough trust to be listened to.
But that will require acknowledging the ludicrousness of some past positions. And what are the odds that the big boss would sit still for such an honorable and reasonable gesture?
Trump’s critics have often invoked crisis comparisons to describe what they might do to repair things. Unfortunately for the Trump team, their problem doesn’t have the clear margins of a crisis. The well-known crisis-management advice of speed, truth and honor applies to Tylenol (cyanide poisoning) and Intel (Pentium flaw). But for those companies there was, as they say, some there there.
So what should the next Sarah Huckabee Sanders do? Let’s pretend we wanted to help Trump, and look at two options: the aspirational and the less aspirational.
The aspirational would be a path of transformation—if not toward honor, then to redemption or at least to honesty. Not very likely.
The less aspirational (and only slightly more likely) scenario says that the Trump team will either come clean about their agendas (tax cuts and de-regulation at any cost) or say, “We now realize this isn’t working; here’s our starting offer to Republications and Democrats to do something good for the country together.”
Alas for this president, even the less aspirational path is way out of reach—because of who he is and what he wants. Donald Trump’s real communications problem is that the two laws of communications physics means he will continue to get exactly the media coverage he deserves.