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We Sought Out Some PR Advice For The White House After Its Very Bad Week

Welcome to The Spin Cycle, a semi-regular look at how the impeachment inquiry is being sold to the American public by Washington-types — both those who are looking to oust the president and those looking to save him.


Rihanna once sang, “Nobody text me in a crisis.” She would not be very useful in impeachment inquiry-era Washington.

Today’s Spin Cycle talks to someone who should be texted in a crisis — a PR professional. We’ll look at how the central actors of the impeachment inquiry are handling the cascade of news and revelations. But first let’s review the events of the last week.

For the Trump White House in particular, it’s been seven days of rolling tough breaks. For starters, a stream of State Department officials defied the White House directive that they ignore congressional subpoenas. On Thursday, October 17, Gordon Sondland, Trump’s ambassador to the European Union, testified that the president ceded control of Ukraine policy to Giuliani and didn’t listen to career diplomats. Sondland’s testimony followed that of former Ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovonovich, who said on October 11 she was removed from her post because of a Giuliani-backed smear campaign. On October 14, Fiona Hill, a former top Russia advisor to the White House testified that Giuliani was running a shadow Ukraine policy and that former National Security Advisor, John Bolton, had called Giuliani a “hand grenade who’s going to blow everybody up.” (Bolton, for context, believes in the value of initiating a first-strike nuclear attack.)

Giuliani, for his part, is reportedly the target of a criminal investigation about his work in Ukraine.

Apart from Sondland’s testimony, Thursday also saw acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney self-immolate during a press briefing when he conceded that there had been a quid pro quo having to do with American aid to Ukraine, just not about the Bidens. Mulvaney said that the White House asked the Ukrainians to look into whether Ukraine, not Russia, had a hand in hacking Demoratic National Committee’s servers during the 2016 election. Later, Mulvaney released a statement saying that the press had twisted his words. The press conference was, of course, video-taped and you can watch Mulvaney’s own words here.

The bad news doesn’t stop with the Ukraine story. Republicans are in open revolt over Trump’s decision to pull U.S. troops out of Syria, leading to a slew of massacres of the Kurdish people and the release of ISIS prisoners. Sen. Lindsay Graham, an outspoken Trump defender, called the decision “the biggest mistake of his presidency.”

I wanted some insight into how a White House — not necessarily the Trump White House — might be dealing with their multiple-front PR crisis, so I called Jamaal Mobley, director at the public relations firm, The Brunswick Group, who is based in Washington and has experience in corporate crisis communications.

The biggest risk in a crisis situation like the White House’s, Mobley told me, are the unknowns. His first step is typically to gather the facts so that he can grasp the totality of an issue. And in the case of Trump’s current crises, there’s one man generating a lot of unknowns. “Where I would be concerned is around what Giuliani’s role was and what he actually did,” Mobley said.

Fact-gathering aside, Mobley says the most critical thing is to put your client in a “leadership position,” a slightly vague term that basically means conveying an air of decisiveness and control, and putting your best foot forward even as the world falls down around you. The British stitch it on pillows: “Keep Calm and Carry On.” While Trump might be facing incoming fire from an array of issues and individuals, he’s remained attentive as ever to his beloved and much-discussed base of voters. In the past week or so, Trump held two large campaign rallies. In Mobley’s view, that’s smart, since the rallies have worked to fire up his voters in the past.

“They’ve been successful because it’s what his audience is looking for from him and he doesn’t really veer from his core audience in terms of messaging,” he said. “There’s a lot to President Trump but there are some lessons that I think corporate leaders should take from him with regard to understanding audience, prioritizing audience and creating messaging that focuses specifically on them.”

The Democrats certainly had a slower week than Trump and the Republicans, but it was still action-packed by normal standards. At the debate Tuesday night, multiple candidates said Trump is “the most corrupt president ever,” or some version thereabouts.

They were less interested in bringing up Hunter Biden, who spun his involvement in the Ukraine scandal by appearing in a televised interview with ABC News. He dismissed allegations that he had done anything untoward in accepting a board seat with a Ukrainian company while his father was the Vice President. The kind of still-legal nepotism that allows a powerful man’s son to sit on the board of a company to enrich himself isn’t exactly a comfortable topic for Democrats. Biden said that he would quit the board of a Chinese company and not work for any foreign companies if his father is elected.

When asked by moderators about his son’s involvement in Ukraine, Biden said, “My son did nothing wrong, I did nothing wrong. I carried out the policy of the United States in rooting out corruption in Ukraine. That’s what we should be focusing on.”

Ultimately, Mobley told me, it was probably a good thing that Hunter took to TV, even if he didn’t make any admission of wrongdoing. “It was good for Hunter to be seen as accepting ownership of the situation even if he wasn’t accepting blame,” he said. Biden’s ultimate goal is to win the nomination, and the Hunter statement, awkward as it might be for the former vice president, is, in Mobley’s view, about demonstrating leadership by being as transparent as possible.

If the “leadership” talk sounds a bit like c-suite buzzwordery, it’s because it is. But Mobley’s point is that in politics, particularly the U.S.’s viciously partisan variety, a PR strategy that demonstrates any kind of authentic “alpha” action is what wins people over, no matter what you’re selling. Democrats and Republicans are going to probably spend the next weeks and months trying to paint themselves in leadership terms. Their definitions of leadership might differ, but their end goals remain the same: to be the most convincingly assured presence to the majority of the public … or at least a plurality. In the end, Americans will make their decisions with their guts. And in this political moment, it’s no mistake they’re doing so.

“There’s a mistrust of institutions, there’s a mistrust of individuals who are in leadership positions and the only thing that people believe in is a person who speaks with conviction and speaks with directness,” Mobley said. “That’s the only way you’re going to convince someone.”

Clare Malone is a senior political writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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