Gini Dietrich

What Alternative Facts Mean to the PR Industry

By: Gini Dietrich | January 24, 2017 | 

Alternative FactsOn Saturday night, Danny Brown posted on Facebook:

I had a two hour workout at the gym today, followed by a kale salad. #alternativefact

I wrote:

You just made me snort.

He said:

Is that a fact or alternative fact?

I said:

That’s a fact. The alternative fact is you made me spit wine out my nose.

(Which totally would have been awesome, but it did not happen.)

And here we are…alternative facts has become a household phrase, literally overnight (and that is the correct use of literally).

The good news is it gives us so much fodder for Spin Sucks.

You see, Spin Sucks exists because people like Kellyanne Conway and Sean Spicer spin the truth and end up making the rest of us look bad.

Really bad.

The Spin of Sean Spicer

Here is a quick synopsis of what happened.

On Saturday afternoon, Sean Spicer—the White House press secretary—held an unannounced news conference to talk about a few points:

  • The Trump inauguration attracted “the largest audience ever to witness an inauguration, period. Both in person and around the globe.”
  • A reporter inaccurately tweeted that the bust of MLK was removed from the Oval Office.
  • As well, “photographs of the inaugural proceedings were intentionally framed in a way, in one particular tweet, to minimize the enormous support that had gathered on the National Mall. This was the first time in our nation’s history that floor coverings have been used to protect the grass on the Mall.  That had the effect of highlighting any areas where people were not standing, while in years past the grass eliminated this visual.”
  • “We know that 420,000 people used the D.C. Metro public transit yesterday, which actually compares to 317,000 that used it for President Obama’s last inaugural.”

The Facts…and Alternative Facts

Here are the facts:

  • According to Nielsen data from Bloomberg, Trump’s inauguration drew 31 million viewers nationwide. “While that figure is greater than the TV draw for the inaugurations of Bill Clinton and both George H.W. and George W. Bush, it is still almost 11 million short of the record set by Ronald Reagan in 1981, and seven million short of Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009.”
  • The reporter who inaccurately tweeted about the MLK immediately retracted, deleted the tweet, and apologized.
  • The white tarps were used at Obama’s 2013 inauguration because the crowds just four years earlier destroyed the grounds.
  • The Washington Post reports the D.C. Metro shows there were 550,000 total riders this past Friday, with 782,000 on Inauguration Day 2013.
  • Spicer’s figure of 317,000 matches a D.C. Metro tweet, which posted that figure as counted by 11 a.m., not for the entire day.
  • According to CNN, about 250,000 tickets were distributed for Trump’s inauguration.

But, it turns out facts—heck, data—just aren’t enough.

On Sunday, Kellyanne Conway sparred with Chuck Todd on Meet the Press.

Chuck took her to task about Spicer’s comments, to which she replied:

Don’t be so overly dramatic about it about it, Chuck. You’re saying it’s a falsehood, but our press secretary, Sean Spicer, gave alternative facts about it.

He responded with:

Alternative facts? Alternative facts are not facts. They’re falsehoods.

Masters of Deflection

Alternative facts are lies. Plain ol’ lies.

The kind of lies we all got in trouble for telling as kids.

The issue is Trump and his team are masters at deflection.

They have everyone in a tizzy about their lies to deflect from appointments and executive orders.

(Which I’m not going to get into because I don’t want to derail this into a political conversation.)

If they weren’t lying to Americans and using their powers for good, I would be super, super impressed.

I liken this to Pablo Escobar. That guy was freaking brilliant.

I mean, to get around the drug-sniffing dogs, he figured out how to get cocaine into paint.

He coated boats with his cocaine paint and steered them right into the U.S., without repercussion.

It’s super impressive…but evil as all get out.

If only he’d used his powers for good.

Likewise, the deflection of the White House is impressive…if only it were used for good.

Spin Sucks

The PR industry has always had a perception issue.

We are immediately thought of as spin doctors and liars.

I can vouch for every, single person who reads this blog.

You are not spin doctors or liars.

I am not a spin doctor or a liar.

No one on my team is a spin doctor or a liar.

But Washington and Hollywood have always made us look bad.

We have movies such as Wag the Dog and TV shows such as Sex & the City.

Those make us look bad and it’s always been a real fight to gain real credibility.

And now we have alternative facts.

Commit to Doing These Five Things

So what do we do?

There are several things we can each commit to doing:

  • Check the facts on anything before we share. Case in point, a friend shared a meme that said Trump copied a portion of his speech from The Bee Movie. As much as I wanted that to be true, I looked it up and it was not.
  • Educate our friends when they post alternative facts or fake news. In the situation above, I let my friend know the meme about The Bee Movie was false.
  • Have a spine and say no. A few years ago, a client whom I adore, asked us to pretend to be a journalist and call a governor’s office to get him to move on something. I have a great relationship with him, so it was easy to make fun of him when I said no, but that might not always be the case. We HAVE to have spines and know how to say no, when we’re asked to do something unethical.
  • Use critical thinking skills. We are all so absorbed with our way being the right way that we forget to use our critical thinking skills. If something seems false, it probably is. Do your due diligence, investigate, and think.
  • Pay for our news. This is something you’ll hear more about from me and others this year. If we pay for our news, the quality of reporting can only go up. Consider that, particularly in the line of work we’re in.

Now it’s your turn.

What would you add to this list of commitments we can each make?

About Gini Dietrich

Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She is the author of Spin Sucks, co-author of Marketing in the Round, and co-host of Inside PR. She also is the lead blogger at Spin Sucks and is the founder of Spin Sucks Pro. Join the Spin Sucks   community!

  • “Use your critical thinking skills.” This is probably the most underused skill in 2016. Let’s hope we learned the lesson and we start using it more in 2017.

    It always amazes me how eager people are to drop common sense and believe whatever nonsense, just because someone in a higher position said it.

  • Liana Miller

    As PR professionals, we need to mind our clients’ credibility and integrity as the most valuable asset that it is. Especially when we mind our clients’ social media channels and media outreach: Stop, slow down and verify in everything we do with our clients. The learning: In the hurry of the moment, Zeke Miller (who was also acting as a press pool reporter – not just a Time representative) reported in error. I can’t help but think if he made one verifying phone call, then the media’s credibility would not have been called into question. Credibility, integrity, honesty are important bedrocks for communications.

    • The media is also under attack so anything they do that can be misconstrued will be. We are all human. We all make mistakes. They’re just under an unfortunate microscope.

      • Liana Miller

        I obviously don’t disagree. But, I do think everyone is moving way too fast. It’s a good lesson for PR pros in an effort to manage our client’s “integrity.”

        • Yes, as I’m trying to do 22 things on my to-do list versus the five we all know is more realistic.

  • Dawn Buford

    You make a great point about paying for our news. I am renewing all my news subscriptions today. It’s very important that we educate ourselves on the facts before speaking and spreading untruths. And it’s imperative that we correct and encourage those who do not know the facts to read up on the subject/situation/issue/etc. Ignorance is not always bliss.

    • I did the Inquisition with Sherrilynne Starkie at the end of the year and she mentioned paying for news. It’s been on my mind since then.

      • It’s so funny, t thought about this, this weekend. The hotel had the Wall Street Journal and it reminded me how nice it was to get a really good paper. One of my favorite things about living in DC was I’d get the Post and every day on my way in and out of the city on the metro I’d devour it. I was better informed at that time in my life than any other, and that makes me sad.

        I think if this election has done anything—no matter what side you are on—it’s reminded us all that living in a democracy is a responsibility. And it is our responsibility to seek out quality news sources. Sources that are as unbiased as possible and speak to both sides of arguments (because I believe you only really know what you believe in, and why, if you can argue for the other side as well).

        Anyway, that was a long way of saying I think I’m going to subscribe to the WSJ or NYT again.

  • Nancy Davis

    I have a REALLY close friend who started saying the group was larger for Trump’s Inauguration than Obama’s. I told her it was not so, that it was fake news. She kept arguing the point, and says now that CNN posts fake news. The problem is I watched both Inaugurations. I know what I saw. Trump’s was not that well attended. It was also the most depressing speech I have ever heard.

    • I was at Obama’s 2009 inauguration and I can tell you that you could not move in the crowds. They shut the Metro down before the Balls. It was INSANE. The good news is we can present the facts and keep doing our thing to make sure that’s what gets out there.

  • If everyone cared and nobody cried
    If everyone loved and nobody lied
    If everyone shared and swallowed their pride
    Then we’d see the day when nobody died

  • I fear this will be the new normal on the political side of things. Business people, on the other hand, I feel are much more aware and hesitant to risk their reputation.

    • Ah, you’re so nice to think that about most business people. I’m not sure I agree. I think there are some who are hesitant to risk their reputations, but even more who will think, “Well, that’s the way things are done now.” It’s going to be a real challenge.

  • You raise strong points, but the one that really needs to catch fire IMO is that accurate, strong reporting cannot be given freely. I’m subscribing to NY Times digital because I find myself blowing through 10 free stories a month in a day or a week, trying to stay abreast of what is coming out of Washington and beyond. Its also why I subscribe to my local community paper (bless their hearts) and the lead paper in my state, even if I don’t always read it cover to cover, I know I’m doing my part to support local news, reporting and PR.

    • We keep talking about this, Lauren. The ONLY way to get the kind of reporting we deserve is to pay for it. We’re all responsible in this.

  • John W Finn

    On using critical thinking skills go beyond just doubting something that seems false. Take a critical look at anything that appeals too much to your biases. If a “fact” confirms your view that Trump is a fool of CNN is fake news, pause and check it out. Journalists use the phrase too good to check for a reason. Nothing is too good to check, but it might be too good to be true. We fall for fake news when it reinforces what we already think or what we want to be true. A good example is Josh Rogin’s piece in the Washington Post on the entire management team of the State Department resigning, because they didn’t want to work for Trump. Brief checking by others revealed that the four senior officials involved were essentially fired, that is, the President accepted the pro forma resignations they had submitted on Inauguration Day. Also, the resignation of four senior officials during the transition is not that unusual. I suspect Rogin rushed to report what he thought was a big story of State Department rebellion, and he made himself look bad. BTW stand by for a real wave of resignations at State. I worked there and I think a lot of career officers are examining their consciences and trying to decide if they can stay on.

    • Super good example, John. I saw an article yesterday that said it’s customary for senior officials to offer their resignation to the incoming president. It’s just that this is the first time he’s accepted. Which goes against what everyone said at the start…and seems closer to the truth.

      We’re in for interesting times. For sure.