Peter Donolo is vice-chairman, and Jason MacDonald is senior vice-president, of Hill+Knowlton Strategies Canada.
Dear Sean Spicer:
You don't know us. But we're both part of the small (though hardly select) society of spokespeople and media chiefs for G7 leaders, past and present.
In fact, as press secretary and chief spokesperson for the President of the United States, you're sort of our global leader, though you probably didn't know it.
We know you've had a tough first few days on the job. So we thought we'd share some of our advice (we each served as director of communications to Canadian prime ministers – Jean Chrétien and Stephen Harper, respectively) – in the spirit of good neighbours and fellow practitioners.
Here's the first rule: Your job is not to suck up to your boss. We know he probably gave you marching orders to go out there on Saturday and say stuff you (and everyone else) knew was not only false, or even demonstrably false, but jarringly, alarmingly, monumentally false.
You did it with a straight face. And the President maybe even patted you on the head.
But you walked out of the briefing room about four feet shorter than you went in. You looked like a fool. And – most important – you hurt your boss and his credibility.
A big part of your job is telling your boss what he needs to hear – not what he wants to hear. And that means telling him when he's being too sensitive. Telling him when he's off message. Telling him when his tactics are counterproductive. Telling him the truth, not nurturing his fantasies.
They call it "speaking truth to power." It's a key function of any communications adviser. And if you can't perform that function, then you can't serve your boss – or your country.
And that leads to the second rule: Never lie to the media. We know it sounds obvious. But you broke it on your first day on the job!
The truth can be ugly and embarrassing. Specific points may be debatable, but making stuff up just doesn't cut it. Put aside the fact that lying is wrong. Or that you're not just lying to a roomful of journalists – but, through them, to the citizens of your country. Just consider the practical fact (and it applies not just to media relations, but to life): Once you're caught lying, your credibility – with good reason – is completely shot.
Here's the third rule, and it's an important one: YOU shouldn't be the story! Your job is to explain what the administration is doing and why. You'll have to put out fires, not start them. You might think you're doing your boss's bidding, but don't kid yourself. If he thinks you're becoming a liability, you'll be out the door faster than you can say "Paul Manafort." You do remember Paul, don't you? He was your boss's campaign manager until he attracted a little too much media controversy.
Finally, rule No. 4: When you're in a hole, stop digging.
Your boss tends to double down when he's wrong. And in your first formal news briefing you did the same thing. You did the same thing again on Monday: "Sometimes we can disagree with the facts." That's exactly the problem. By definition, you can't disagree with facts. A fact is a fact. Unless you're talking about, um, "alternative facts."
The good news is it's still not too late to climb out of your hole. Start by saying you're sorry. Blame it on opening-night jitters, or food poisoning from the Trump Hotel. Whatever. Just admit you messed up, apologize and promise it won't happen again.
Then you can move on to what really matters: Your boss is busy signing executive orders, making policy decisions and, you know, being the President. If you want to change the channel, there is lots to talk about.
Or maybe you don't want to. Maybe you'd rather scrap endlessly with the media over something that in the long run really doesn't matter, to you or to your boss's success. That, too, would be a mistake.
We know it's really only Week 1 of what is going to be the busiest job of your life. You're going to have some good days and we all know you've already had some bad ones. But you've still got four years ahead of you and you can choose how to do your time. For all of our sakes, we're all hoping you choose to do it the right way.