The Fine Line That Divides Truth and Alternative Facts
As I watched Melissa McCarthy nail White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer on Saturday Night Live this past weekend, I started thinking about the role of a spokesperson and how it’s so easy to slip from fact to fiction.
I know because I used to be one. The lines between truth, “spin” and outright BS are quite often very blurry. It’s easy to move from facts, to opinions and then make opinions sound just as important as facts.
While I don’t want to get into the whole political debate in this blog, I do want to let you know that I learned a great technique to avoid the need to lie about anything while working as a spokesperson.
Mind you if Spicer had used it, I wouldn’t have been laughing so hard last Saturday night.
The Honest Spin Doctor
Three years ago this month I wrote my book The Honest Spin Doctor. It’s amazing to think that three years has gone by since the Sochi Olympics when I sent part of each day watching the games and writing the book.
Like every other author, I wanted a catchy title and it came to me one morning as I was shaving (I do some of my best thinking then it seems). I wanted something to illustrate the main point I was making in the book that a media spokesperson could tell their story without having to use “spin” or lying to do it.
Spin is what many PR people (communications professionals) and politicians get accused of using. It’s not really lying, it’s finding something positive to speak about in any situation and minimizing any negative aspect to the story. A great example comes after many international summer athletic competitions when Canadian sports officials don’t want to talk too much about only getting a couple of bronze medals, but instead focus on Canada’s rising number of “Top 8 finishes”, as if anyone in Canada cares.
After spending 15 years in the news media, I worked for three years in public relations with the City of Edmonton’s Public Works department and then did a 12-year stint as CEO of what is now the Alberta branch of the Canadian Home Builders’ Association. 30 years was evenly split between working in the media and speaking on behalf of an organization to the media.
The title of my book and the thought behind it seem especially important today.
Facts, Opinions, Spin and Lies
Through his run to the White House, the media caught Donald Trump being less than honest on a daily basis. It wasn’t just him though, other candidates, including Hillary Clinton, were doing it. After one of the televised Presidential debates, the media did some fact checking and determined that Trump said a couple of dozen things that were either false or misleading, but Clinton did the same thing several times too. We used to call it “stretching the truth”. Now it’s called “alternative facts.”
As soon as Trump was sworn in last month, the number of lies seemed to increase and more importantly the people around him like Sean Spicer and his Consultant Kellyanne Conway ramped up the rhetoric and made up stories, lied, used half truths, slanted opinions and well….like my Mom used to say – talked pure bullshit.
Spicer’s actions for me have been the most concerning. In the past, US Press Secretaries have not been total hucksters for the President, but played an important role of explaining the President’s thoughts and actions and provided an important link between White House reporters and the Oval Office. Those days ended January 20.
It would be much easier for somebody like Spicer to simply repeat what Trump had said and explain why the President feels that way. If he doesn’t know why Trump has taken a specific action, then all he has to do is say so.
One thing I’ve learned is that nobody should be expected to comment on every question. Doing so just gets you in trouble. A great example took place in Houston last week in the run-up to the Super Bowl. New England Patriots coach Bill Belichek and quarterback Tom Brady are Trump supporters. They were asked by the media about Trump, their support of him, Trump’s actions as President etc etc etc. Their responses were the same – they weren’t going to comment on Trump, they were focused on playing a football game and that’s what they wanted to talk about. End of discussion.
Don’t get me wrong. It would have been great if they would have opened up on their thoughts on Trump and politics, but as soon as they did, more questions would have come, requiring more answers, leading to reaction from teammates, leading to controversy, all before the biggest game of the season.
Not everyone can do this of course. Politicians are expected to comment on political decisions they’ve made and explain why. They can’t say “I’m not going there”, but football coaches and players can.
Walking the Fine Line Between Fact and Fiction
My point is, people who speak to the media should never lie, or play fast and loose with the facts. Doing so just makes them look stupid in the minds of most thinking people.
It’s far better for them to recognize the situation they face in advance and try to “bridge” to something else, which means move the focus of the discussion to a related topic. If reporters want them to comment on something specific that the spokesperson doesn’t want to get into, then the spokesperson should say they don’t intend to comment on that. If reporters continue to ask the spokesperson to comment on something he’s already said he won’t, the spokesperson should simply say “I think I’ve answered that already” and then repeat what was said earlier, perhaps using a few different words, but not getting off message.
It’s tricky though. You need to either answer a question directly, or explain why you won’t answer it. Refusing to acknowledge the question and giving the statement you want to give is a losing proposition.
The reality of the situation however, is the Press Secretary can’t disagree with something the President has said. That’s job suicide.
In my opinion, nobody should be paid to lie. They should be paid to communicate messages properly, tell their story well and make their audience aware of certain facts and opinions from people they speak on behalf of. Lying should never be part of the deal.