What Not to Do as a Communications Professional in a Time of Crisis: The Spicer Handbook

“Yay! SNIPE!” by Tatiana Bulyonkova

May 10, 2017; Washington Post

Hiding in the bushes in the dark of night* when the shit hits the fan is just a terrible look for a communications professional—and this time, we are not speaking metaphorically. So, we thought we would illustrate some basic rules for nonprofit folk with a case in point.

According to the Washington Post and untold numbers of other media outlets, White House press secretary Sean Spicer took cover among the tall White House hedges on Tuesday evening as the press tried to pin him down to answer their questions about the president’s sudden firing of FBI Director James Comey.

He only emerged from the bushes after a press office executive assistant, Janet Montesi, said he would answer reporters’ questions so long as they didn’t film him, according to the Post.

“Just turn the lights off. Turn the lights off,” Spicer told the reporters. “We’ll take care of this.… Can you just turn that light off?”

A plea that may go down in spokesperson history. Even after he acceded to a quick round of questions, Spicer continued to stand in the dark.

But this fiasco, tailor-made for those who might wish to characterize the White House as incompetent, followed yet another bizarre situation:

For more than three hours, Spicer and his staff had been scrambling to answer that question [about the precipitous firing of Comey just as he had revealed that he wished to ratchet up the Russia investigation]. Spicer had wanted to drop the bombshell news in an emailed statement, but it was not transmitting quickly enough, so he ended up standing in the doorway of the press office around 5:40 p.m. and shouting a statement to reporters who happened to be nearby. He then vanished, with his staff locking the door leading to his office. The press staff said that Spicer might do a briefing, then announced that he definitely wouldn’t say anything more that night. But as Democrats and Republicans began to criticize and question the firing with increasing levels of alarm, Spicer and two prominent spokeswomen were suddenly speed-walking up the White House drive to defend the president on CNN, Fox News, and Fox Business.

The whole scene suggested a lack of care that makes the administration seem impetuous to the point of dangerousness…and if you want the public’s trust, that’s just self-harm.

Keep this vision of hiding behind hedges in the dead of night while the press tracks you down in mind. Too many nonprofits still do this in crisis even as the press grinds on. A refusal to be responsive is news in and of itself for a public that expects some measure of accountability. For those of you who want to avoid such an image, we offer “Mission, Message, and Damage Control” by Kim Klein, our classic about communications in a crisis. Download it and share it with your board!—Ruth McCambridge

*Editor’s note: This story has been updated to more precisely describe White House press secretary Sean Spicer’s location late Tuesday night in the minutes before he briefed reporters. According to the Washington Post, Spicer huddled with his staff among the bushes near television sets on the White House grounds, not in the bushes as the story originally stated.