The Trump administration has taken communication practices to new lows and communication malpractice to new highs. Now, the coronavirus crisis is exposing just how costly it can be when an administration knowingly misleads the public or refuses to provide a basic level of transparency.
From the mundane (exaggerating Inauguration crowd sizes) to the ridiculous (for example, the president saying he has “one of the greatest memories of all time” or claiming that a speech he gave in Poland “was the greatest speech ever made on foreign soil by a president”), the president, his White House staff, department leaders, and their spokespeople have all engaged in questionable practices as they communicate information to the public.
Like with many things about the Trump administration, these communication failures and missteps didn’t begin with President Donald Trump’s election, but they have clearly worsened during his tenure. For example, the Washington Post’s Fact Checker column, assigning Pinocchios to politicians for factual errors in their written and oral statements, didn’t start with Trump. But the number of instances cited and Pinocchios awarded has only increased over the past three years. Likewise, Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests have seen backlogs under previous administrations, but that backlog, as well as the litigation around FOIA requests, has jumped dramatically under the Trump administration. Despite his claims to the contrary, President Trump’s administration is the least transparent in history.
All administrations make mistakes, commit gaffes, and engage in spin. However, the Trump administration has taken miscommunication to new levels — and with damaging effects on the public and U.S. allies. Worse still, it has given our adversaries opportunities to exploit and even some wins. From repeated errors in written and oral statements to knowingly misleading the public, openly attacking the free press, and its lack of transparency, the administration has weaponized information in unprecedented ways.
Now let’s talk about the practices across the administration that have contributed to this lack of transparency, trust, and, importantly, credibility.
Not for attribution
As a professional communicator, serving multiple administrations both in and out of uniform (I retired from the Marines in 2015), I was taught that trust and credibility are paramount for effective communication. In addition to my own personal credibility, I knew my job as a spokesman put my organization’s credibility on the line as well,— whether I was speaking for the Marine Corps, the Departments of Defense, or Homeland Security, and especially when I was serving overseas, as a representative of the United States and its government.
The job of the spokesperson, as the name suggests, is to present information on behalf of the organization he/she represents. I was not the defense secretary or the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, but it was my job to represent them, and the agencies they led, through written or oral communications. Spokespersons are often described as the “faces” of the organization, since engagement with the press and public is a key part of the job. In that role, it’s the spokesperson’s name, title and, yes, face that becomes associated with the organization’s positions, everywhere from radio and television appearances and traditional press to social media.
The Trump administration has turned some of these longtime practices on its head. For example, administration spokespersons now often refuse to be identified by name while representing an agency’s position on given topics.
The most egregious examples are when spokespersons provide a “no comment” to reporters, but insist it be on background. This is unprecedented and appalling. There are times when it is appropriate for spokespersons to provide information “on background” to provide context, or to not detract from the on-the-record quotes their boss provided, but anonymity has become the rule rather than the exception with this administration.
Meanwhile, the president rails against unnamed sources — even going so far as to call them “fake” —while administration officials continue to talk to reporters and conduct briefings with the condition they be done without attribution. Given this administration’s hostile stance toward the press and its track record for telling the truth, news organizations should refuse to print or air official comments or statements from administration officials unless they are on the record.
Why is it important for spokespersons — or government officials at all levels — to “put their names” behind their statements and comments? For credibility and accountability. Without named sources, how are news consumers to judge the credibility of the remarks they are reading or hearing? There are circumstances under which people who speak with reporters want their names withheld for safety or security reasons, but that should not be the case with government spokespersons. Attaching their names to a story lends a credibility that is absent without it.
Any government official, but particularly a spokesperson, should be held accountable if the information they provide is found to be inaccurate or purposefully misleading. A quote containing false information without a name attached to it makes it harder to hold that person accountable for their statement down the road, and the public isn’t able to assess that person’s credibility in future comments or statements. Government is accountable to the people it serves, and if anonymity is granted, the government officials who hide behind it can’t be held accountable.
Credibility and accountability
It has also become all too common under the Trump administration for organizations like the Departments of Defense, Homeland Security and State (partially because they are more “visible” than other Cabinet agencies) to pull back from longstanding media engagement practices. Having served in both DoD and DHS, I speak from personal experience.
While DoD under Defense Secretary Mark Esper has started to hold more press briefings, the department no longer conducts daily “gaggles” with the Pentagon press corps, a group of the most experienced reporters in the world. Daily gaggles were standard practice at the Pentagon for many years before I conducted them in 2010-11 and for several years after I left. These daily engagements were off-camera but on-the-record, Monday through Friday. Were they a tough part of the job? Absolutely. But they were an important way to provide updated, factual information to the press corps in between the on-camera briefings. Those on-camera briefings, which had been conducted by secretaries of Defense, Chairmen of the Joint Chiefs, DoD spokespersons and other senior DoD or Joint Staff officials for more than two decades, nearly disappeared under Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan. Esper has resumed them, but they are still more sporadic than they were under previous administrations.
No, on-camera press briefings aren’t the only means to disseminate information to the press, public, and DoD workforce, but they serve a valuable purpose and the administration still hasn’t explained why they have been curtailed. Again, it’s about credibility and accountability, particularly at times of crisis. DoD recently held two on-the-record press briefings on coronavirus response but did so off-camera. Why?
Finally, the importance of clear, credible communication during times of crisis cannot be overstated. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar recently refused to provide the numbers of ventilators available for coronavirus patients, citing national security, yet one of the government’s lead physicians, Dr. Anthony Fauci, provided the number in a CNN interview. Unfortunately, three years of Trump administration communication practices has created a trust gap at a time when trust and confidence is needed most. From the standoffs with North Korea and Iran, and now with a pandemic sweeping the country, the administration’s growing reputation for inaccurate, confusing, and adversarial interactions with the press is deepening the trust deficit and damaging relations with the American people as well as our allies.
News organizations must insist that the administration return to common media engagement practices. The administration must halt its attacks on individual journalists and the free press. If it does not make the necessary changes for the good of the public, news organizations should stop participating in interviews and briefings by government officials who hide behind anonymity. They also should refuse to quote spokespersons who decline to be named. Given the excesses and abuses of this administration, “background” should only be allowed in rare instances.
If there was ever a time for the administration to abandon its current practices and engage openly and honestly with the press and public, it is now.
The mixed messages coming from the Trump administration on the COVID-19 outbreak may have already cost lives. More attacks, both cyber and kinetic, are likely, especially as we are (rightfully) focused on the pandemic. We must stay vigilant to all potential threats. These are dangerous times, and while the trust and credibility gap with the public remains, the Trump administration cannot allow it to fester, and widen. American lives are at stake.
Image: President Donald Trump listens as Defense Secretary Mark Esper speaks during the daily briefing on the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, at the White House on March 18, 2020, in Washington, DC. Photo by BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images