4 crisis lessons from Sean Spicer’s major misstep

The press secretary used Hitler and the Holocaust to draw a comparison to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons. Here’s what you can learn from the PR disaster.

It’s been a busy week for crisis communicators.

It might have seemed that one couldn’t top Pepsi’s marketing misstep or United’s PR mess (which will become a case study for years to come), but White House press secretary Sean Spicer stepped up to the challenge.

During Tuesday’s White House press briefing, Spicer referenced Adolf Hitler and the Holocaust while discussing the use of chemical weapons by Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.

“You know, you had someone as despicable as Hitler who didn’t even sink to using chemical weapons,” Spicer said.

Crisis communicators and PR pros can pull some valuable takeaways from Spicer’s comments, as well as his later-issued clarifications and eventual apologies:

1. Don’t compare things to Adolf Hitler or the Holocaust.

Don’t do it. There are other comparisons you can choose. (See Godwin’s law.)

2. Apologize immediately.

As soon as you realize you are digging yourself into a hole, stop shoveling.

Spicer could have immediately stopped and said: “Excuse me. That was an insensitive and inaccurate comparison, and I should not have said that. What I should have said was…”

He still would have to deal with a wave of negative coverage after the briefing, but it probably would have been shorter and more manageable. Recognizing a mistake and addressing it immediately shows your humanity, which is invaluable in crisis response and brand rebuilding.

After his comments in the Tuesday briefing, Spicer continued to build on the comparison, even after a reporter pressed him on the issue.

The New York Times reported:

Asked to clarify his remarks, Mr. Spicer then acknowledged that Hitler had used chemical agents, but maintained that there was a difference.

“I think when you come to sarin gas, he was not using the gas on his own people the same way that Assad is doing,” Mr. Spicer said, incorrectly, before mentioning “Holocaust centers,” an apparent reference to Nazi death camps.

He released the following clarification prior to issuing a formal apology:

Instead of slowing the story’s spread, each continuation of the comparison helped the story peak again and again. When you or your organization makes a mistake, own up to it quickly.

3. If you’ve messed up before, be prepared to answer questions about the past.

As you or your PR team prepare for an apology, be mindful of how the current crisis relates to past issues your organization has handled.

Team Trump previously elicited criticism for not mentioning Jews and anti-Semitism in statements on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, for not addressing or slowly addressing bomb threats against Jewish schools and community centers, and for tweeting an anti-Hillary Clinton image with the Star of David during the presidential campaign.

Help your team stay a step ahead by preparing information ahead of time.

Compile and set aside an issue file in which you outline dates, issue summaries and brand responses as they happen over time. Having this information in place will save your team priceless crisis response minutes. It also will mean you—or the executive stepping up to issue an apology—can easily prepare answers to reporters’ questions about prior related problems.

4. Recognize your mistake, and issue a strong, concise apology.

When you’re wrong, admit it and apologize sincerely.

After Tuesday’s written clarifications were issued, Spicer appeared on CNN to discuss the problem with Wolf Blitzer. He later addressed the issue with MSNBC’s Greta Van Susteren at the Newseum and again on Wednesday morning.

“Frankly, I mistakenly used an inappropriate and insensitive reference to the Holocaust for which, frankly, there is no comparison, and for that I apologize. It was a mistake to do that,” he said on CNN.

“I made a mistake. There’s no other way to say it. I got into a topic that I shouldn’t have, and I screwed up,” he said at the Newseum.

Spicer eventually faced the issue head on. He acknowledged his mistake and apologized for what he had said. He did not offer excuses, and he did not minimize the effect of his words.

This helped move the story out of its lead spot in news cycles and into the growing pile of case studies from this week’s handful of PR disasters. However, the press secretary still has his reputation to repair.

“The problem is, in Sean Spicer’s position, in this particular situation, you cannot apologize your way back to credibility,” The Hill reported.

Leslie Minton is media relations manager at Arizona State University. Follow her on Twitter: @Leslie_Minton.

(Image by VOA via)


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