Wednesday, January 04, 2017

Taking out the Christmas tree trash: Jason Miller & announcement screens

As I read successive news stories about Jason Miller, who was to be the new administration's communications director, over Christmas weekend, all I could think of was "don't get caught, people."

Let me say from the start that the "don't get caught" here isn't a reference to the allegations of an extramarital affair by Miller. I can't help you there, guy.

My focus, as always, is how this announcement went bad in just a few days, from big announcement, to a second announcement that he wasn't taking the job , to the affair allegations. And while I've served in a senior political post in the Clinton Administration, my perspective here has nothing to do with politics, nor with how to cover things up--far from it. I want my readers and clients to understand how to anticipate problems with announcements, long before they step into a puddle, or worse.

At base, all announcements in every sector are about decisions that have been made. If a few key and routine questions had been asked, it should have been clear that the decision to make and announce this appointment were bad choices. Since the holidays, we're hearing reports that the new administration has been focusing more on announcing appointees, and not so much on vetting them, and this appointment is an example of that.

As the communications pro, you may or may not be in the room when the decision is made, but you should be able to evaluate it before announcing it. Here are the screening questions, or a start at them, that would have gotten the decision-makers closer to clarity and the communicators more on solid ground:
  1. What's the downside of this decision? Those with announcements to make err, most of the time, on all the positives. Before you march your "final" decision out in public, who will turn it around and over and upside down to find the potential negatives? Who will ask the uncomfortable questions that someone out in the world will ask when this is announced? What are the answers to those questions? Are they going to pass muster? What are the legal, financial, policy, and societal implications? Who gets hurt here? Who gets to gloat? What will your enemies say? What will your friends say? What will insiders close to the process say? Who's been standing around quietly in the back of the room listening? Often, this kind of process leads to better decisions, especially and even if it is managed by the communications pros. That was often the case when I was a senior official at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, serving as a final filter for soon-to-be-public actions. The questions can't always stop stupid things from happening, but they can prevent many from marching forward. I recommend this to the new administration heartily, and to all of you, working in every sector.
  2. How shall we announce it, part one? In this case, the question pertains to either the first action or the withdrawal of same. A small group of White House communications leaders' names were announced just before the Christmas and Hanukkah holidays, including the more public post of press secretary, social media director, and so on. The communications director post was among them. Nothing odd there: The process of appointing senior leadership should continue apace, even during the holidays. And the media were distracted by other hints about how frequent their briefings will be and whether there will be a press pool. But in a take-out-the-trash moment of announcing bad news on a weekend holiday in the hopes of minimizing its impact, the withdrawal of Miller's name came on Christmas Eve, a Saturday. The timing also could be seen as a swift turnaround, as it came after another transition official tweeted hints about the affair and confronted the transition organization about it in the days after his appointment was made known. But the effect was one of attempting to bury the lede.
  3. Open secrets are not closed up in a lockbox: The affair in question, between Miller and another transition official, was apparently known to many on that team, so there's no pleading innocence here. Do examine the open secrets revolving around decisions you are going to make public. They don't have to be extramarital affairs or embezzlement to make news. They might involve changes of perspective, internal fighting, hidden cost estimates known to management, and more. Your announcement skipping over those things might just be the push an angry participant needs to start leaking like a sieve.
  4. How shall we announce it, part two? You're not always in control of timing, but how you choose to word the announcement is entirely in the hands of the organization talking about its own decision. The new administration's transition chose a time-honored but sexist and tired tactic of using women and children as a shield, citing Miller's need to "spend more time with his family," and noting that he and he wife will be expecting a child soon. There are so many problems with this approach, triteness aside.  "More time with his family" is the oldest euphemism in the Washington playbook, and rarely means what it says--so it's a prompt for reporters and others to dig for the real reason. When I heard this news on Christmas Eve,  and the stated reason, I assumed there was a juicier problem afoot, and I was not alone. Including his wife and child in the statement was the sexist verbal equivalent of having a wife stand beside her husband while he answers press questions about an affair that has endangered his public career--it's not a best practice, shall we say. Leave the jilted wife and baby out of it, please. These, too, are trite red flags, whether for the media or your enemies. Stop waving them.
Now, it's possible that the transition team breezed through these questions and didn't care about the consequences, thought themselves bulletproof, or just didn't take the time and forethought to consider whether there might be a problem. Think strategically in this new year, communicators, so you don't get caught. And if you want help coming up with a screening process that will help you avoid just that, email me at eloquentwoman AT gmail DOT com. 

(Creative Commons licensed photo by Andrew Malone)

Don't get caught unprepared, speechless, or without a message, but do catch me on Twitter, on Google+, and on the don't get caught page on Facebook--all great places to add your comments to the discussion. Subscribe to my monthly newsletter, Speakers & Communicators, to make sure you don't miss a thing on my blogs and get the first news about new workshops and projects.

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