The top priority in a crisis that affects the public is providing public information.
For decades, our team has worked with clients in their crisis preparation, including simulations for a range of scenarios that have included hostage-taking standoffs, aviation disasters and chemical spills. Those situations mirror the illness of a U.S. President because suddenly, private information must become public because of its implications.
Just last year, I had the honor of keynoting a regional conference of public information officers from both government and the private sector called “The PIO and The Right To Know.” Yes, the public has a right to, not just an expectation of, information. My presentation focused on a “successful” crisis communication effort and the key, as I told this audience, was the commitment to communicating truth at every step.
The physician to the President has taken a different approach and nothing less than the credibility of the nation is threatened by his behavior in his weekend briefings.
On Saturday, his live remarks had to be corrected, privately, to journalists by the White House Chief of Staff. On Sunday, Dr. Sean Conley made it clear that his interest was not in public information but, rather, in appeasing his patient.
He actually seemed to admit to the national audience that his priority was not to keep his updates truthful. Rather, he wanted them to be “upbeat.” Here’s how he put it, in more words, “I didn’t want to give any information that might steer the course of illness in another direction.” As if a virus can respond to a public briefing?
To put it simply, this isn’t how it’s taught in media training. While we encourage reassurance where appropriate, because that is what the public expects and deserves, first and foremost is a clear recitation of the facts, as they are known. If the news is good, bad or indifferent, nothing short of the truth is ever acceptable.
Every question should be answered, as long as answers are known. There should be no hiding. But Conley was evasive on obvious questions, including potential damage to the President’s lungs, common in patients his age.
A very challenging situation has now been made worse because of mistrust at worst and confusion, at best.
When your job is to provide public information, what your boss wants and what the public needs may be different. In the event of a conflict, deference goes to the public. At least it should.