Bashing White House Spokesperson Sean Spicer has become a popular pastime, from Melissa McCarthy’s parody on Saturday Night Live to Comedy Central’s portrayal of him as a condescending kindergarten teacher at his wit’s end.
As a public relations professional, my visceral response to his daily briefings often swings wildly from amused dismay to horror, which was recently amplified by comments in which he compared actions in Syria to Hitler. The rules involving these comparisons typically go without saying.
While Spicer offers many great teaching moments for a Communication 100 course, his approach to his role and the truth has implications for the communicators who are charged with providing information to the public.
While Spicer may be the spokesperson for the President of the United States, he is the country’s most visible public information officer.
It’s a title that may conjure up images of men and women, eyes red due to lack of sleep, providing information on the public impacts of the latest hurricane, forest fire or blizzard. However, that is a limited view of the public information officer’s role. The public relies on these individuals to be empathic and truthful, and they are often the first to build trust between government officials and those they serve.
In its code of ethics, the Public Relations Society of America lists honesty as one of its core professional values. It states that PR professionals must “adhere to the highest standards of accuracy and truth in advancing the interests of those we represent and in communicating with the public.”
Of course, every organization has a story to tell, and most spokespeople walk to the podium with a set of messages that will advance that story. However, as most government spokespeople will tell you, every message must be rooted in the truth. As the stewards of the public they serve, it is the government communicator’s responsibility to build a relationship of trust with the public. For, once this trust is lost, there is no going back.
I get it. It’s not easy being a government spokesperson. There were many times I heard the words Freedom of Information Act and wanted to delete every email I or my colleagues had ever received or sent because I knew they didn’t fit the story I wanted to tell. But I didn’t. I buried that impulse because my job was to provide truthful information, ugly or not, to the public.
As the spokesperson for Raleigh-Durham International Airport for 15 years, I was lucky. The airport directors I worked for always understood what their responsibility was as public servants. When I walked in front of the camera, I knew that my team was behind me and had given me the most reliable information they had.
Perhaps that is not the position Sean Spicer is in. Perhaps he has been told the truth doesn’t matter. Maybe he isn’t always told the truth.
Whatever the case, it is important that he remains the exception. In my experience he is. For every public relations professional I know, honesty and the trust it creates with their audience is paramount, and I hope that these values will become a priority for our top government spokesperson.
Mindy Hamlin was the spokesperson for Raleigh-Durham International Airport for 15 years.