Trump’s shameful legacy includes 30,000+ false & misleading claims

Last year, in my “Go Figure: Making Numbers Count” numeracy programs, I focused on the 2020 U.S. Presidential campaign. Anchoring the session each time was my “GOlympics” quiz, in which each letter (G-O-L-Y…etc) covers a mathematical principle that intersects with the art of story-telling.

One of those queries:

“Since Donald Trump became President, the Washington Post has tracked false and misleading claims that he has made. In coverage of prior administrations, the Post has tracked a number of previous presidents’ per-day lying habits. How many other presidents’ false and misleading claims have been tracked?”

Usually, people would guess anywhere from two to five prior Presidents. Once or twice, an alert individual would give the correct answer: zero.

Although it’s obvious that prior U.S. Presidents had fibbed in a multitude of manners, it is safe to say that none had ever done so with as much frequency or flagrancy as Trump. But without a more exhaustive analysis, we have no way of knowing with any precision by how many times our 45th President eclipsed his predecessors in the Liar, Liar Pants on Fire department.

About That Number 0

Quick aside about that “zero” answer: my point in crafting what some might consider a “trick” question is that it should not be seen as tricky at all–zero is not only a bona fide number, but it’s immensely important. One reason for its outsized significance is that it can be embedded into misleading or murky communication.

To wit: “The city council member noted that his vote came because a number of people have been complaining about the issue.”

Each time I covered this question during my Go Figure program, I would pose another one that goes to the heart of journalistic ethics: Do you believe the Post should continue this false/misleading tracker with future Presidents? My students, I am glad to report, would answer in the same manner that I would emphatically argue: absolutely yes!

For one thing, Trump has given all future Presidents a benchmark against which they can be measured. Do they have the gall (and stamina and outright detachment from honesty) to utter false or misleading claims upwards of 21 times a day?

Beyond that, though, it’s only appropriate that, in fairness and balance, Biden (and future Presidents) ought to be held to the same standard of forthrightness that we seek in our leaders.

In Praise of The Post

The task of tracking politicians’ statements, and checking them against the truth, is herculean. The Washington Post deserves the highest praise for its effort, as do all others who tackle such a monumental challenge. It is also notable that the Fact Checker’s editor in chief, Glenn Kessler, points out that his team does not fact-check “to influence the behavior of politicians; we write fact checks to inform voters. What voters — or politicians — do with the information in our fact checks is up to them.”

You should check out the Post Fact Checker’s database of Trump’s false and misleading claims. While charting it along a daily and monthly timeline, the newspaper breaks it down by topic, from terrorism and trade to the coronavirus, his own biographical record, and a host of other categories. It is horrifying to behold–and that’s no lie.

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Oh, baby! New year’s news warms weary soul

In my journalism career, I had the opportunity to write about so many subjects—quite literally from A (archaeologists, academics, activists, annual budgets, and an astronaut, just for starters) to Z (maybe a zoo? a zebra? Well, at least some folks had first and last names starting with the 26th letter of the alphabet).

However, I cannot recall ever writing about a New Year’s Baby—that hyper-local staple of journalism that, come every January, chronicles a community or region’s inaugural boy or girl.

Page 1 of the Jan. 8, 2021 edition of the Harlan News-Advertiser. Inside were police reports, high school basketball game accounts, birthday notices for those celebrating their 70th and 90th birthdays, obituaries and other local news and columns.

This all comes to mind on the heels of my 1,000-mile trek last week from Colorado back to Chicagoland. Along the way, at multiple convenience store/gas stations, I encountered local newspapers that were faithfully on the New Year’s baby beat.

I chuckled at the recurring theme and could not resist purchasing one of those editions, the Harlan Advertiser-News in Harlan, Iowa. The front page proclaimed the news of the birth of Maya Louise Scheffler, the fourth child of Megan Gettys and Adam Scheffler. A pretty cool subplot: one local resident won a year’s subscription to the paper ($69 value) by being the closest to predict the precise time of the first area baby’s arrival. Stunningly, JoAnn Bruck of Earling was a mere one minute off the mark.

It may be hard to summon the memory, but can you think back to the closing days of the seemingly never-ending 2020? Were you, like so many of us, anxious to put the trying, terrible, tragic, traumatic year in our rear-view mirror? It was a horrible time in countless ways; too many of us have our stories of woe, me and my family included.

Sadly, 2021 has felt like a colossal doubling-down of 2020. At the heart of its terrible tumult: the heinous insurrection last week at the U.S. Capitol.

From afar, like so many millions of Americans, I witnessed that ugliness with a heavy heart. A few days later, making our way back after a week of blunted restoration near the Rockies, my soul was warmed to see these beaming couples along with their healthy children in those newspaper accounts from across the heartland.

Not sure if you had occasion to come across any similar account. If not, here you go—may it offer you, amidst the madness and brokenness, at least a small measure of hope and joy.

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Three Simple Steps to Shoring Up Those Loose LinkedIn Connections & Adding Value

What is your reaction when someone you barely know, or don’t know at all, seeks to connect with you on LinkedIn?

You may agree to the connection, but it will be a loose link at best, unlikely to generate much benefit to either of you.

Keep that in mind as you reflect on whether, or how, to reach out to people that you barely know, but would like to stay in touch with via the increasingly popular professional social media platform.

Here are three steps to consider:

1. Never seek to Link-In with someone you have not met personally or been in contact with previously.

Flouting this counsel will relegate you to the realm of the presumptuous or weird. At minimum, you will come across as unprofessional, and that’s the polar opposite of the first impression you are striving for. On those occasions where you want to Link-In with someone, take an intermediate step of introducing yourself, either in a phone call or an email, so that your LinkedIn outreach isn’t the cyber-equivalent of a cold call.

2. When making the LinkedIn invitation, personalize your greeting.

Especially if you have not met the individual one-on-one, this is paramount.

For example, a while back I was at a business panel discussion. Later in the day, I looked up one of the speakers online and his LinkedIn profile indicated that we share several mutual connections. In my invitation, I noted those mutual connections as well as the fact that I was writing a summary of his panel discussion. Armed with that context, he accepted my invitation.

3. Try to provide value to the new connection as soon as possible.

How often have you had the experience of Linking-in with someone, only to have them fade from memory days, or maybe even only hours, later? For all intents and purposes, you and the other individual are just taking up space on your respective rosters of names and titles.

To rise above that tendency, see what you can to serve the new connection. Maybe it’s a story that relates to their field, or a mutual connection that you can edify in a brief note, in such a way that it might spark a dialogue that leads to something mutually productive.

Best-selling author and acclaimed marketing leader Seth Godin puts it this way: “We remember what you did when you didn’t need us so urgently…It means investing, perhaps overinvesting, in relationships long before it’s in your interest to do so.”

No, Martha, It’s Not 1977 Anymore: You Are No Longer at the ‘Mainstream’ Media’s Mercy

Psst...it's not 1977 anymore!. (Inside Edge PR photo)

Psst…it’s not 1977 anymore!. (Inside Edge PR photo)

Sometimes, we need a smack upside the head with a reminder that it’s not 1977 anymore.

It’s not even 2002, not by a long shot.

For the past 15 years in which I have been plying the public relations trade, I have been banging this particular drum, louder and more insistently: the so-called mainstream media is no longer the sole arbiter of what’s news.

Sure, there are still gatekeepers who decide if you get into this publication over here or on that TV station over there. But everyone now has an unlimited number of publications and TV channels, thanks to the magic of the Internet.

Master marketer and outside-the-box thought leader Seth Godin weighs in insightfully on this note with his post, “The Debate Channel.”

Although his post related to the burgeoning runs for the U.S. Presidency, way back in ’16, his points are relevant across the board, regardless of industry. He’s got plenty of golden nuggets in the piece, but here are a few of my favorites:

“But TV isn’t in charge any more. We each own our own TV broadcasting network—anyone who wants to put on a show, can.”

“Can you imagine a musician today who only performed on TV when asked to by Jimmy Fallon? No music videos, no online work…”

“The organization with an FCC license is no longer in charge, debates aren’t something that happen to you, they’re something you can choose to do.”

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In the Crosshairs of a Critic? Take These 3 Key Steps

Not long ago, I provided counsel to an organization subjected to what they believed was a social-media smear campaign.

In a nutshell, a former organizational member—terminated about 18 months earlier due to various professional shortcomings—began making allegations that the organization felt consisted of half-truths, distorted depictions, and outright falsehoods.

There was a distinctly racial tinge to this (biracial) person’s proclamations. The critic had some influence in the local media as well as in the organization’s industry. The potential for this problem to fester, and even worsen, was very real.

What to do in response?

Illustration, courtesy of Bulldog Reporter (where this piece was originally published, Oct. 14, 2020)

After gathering enough background to get a lay of the crisis-ridden land, I recommended my client take three crucial steps. These actions apply not only to organizations that are being wrongfully dragged through the muck, but those that have fallen short of the mark in one or more ways.

Much is at stake, particularly because the effects of prolonged crisis can be debilitating. At minimum, they result in distraction. In some extreme cases, they can set in motion a series of events that end in organizational destruction.

Note: this list is a baseline of how to respond and is hardly exhaustive. Surely, there are other actions that this client should take—and same goes for any other organization finding themselves in the crosshairs of a public campaign to discredit them.

  • Get proactive.

Develop internal and external statements, for potential use on the org’s website, to share with strategic partners and other stakeholders, to distribute internally, and to share with anyone who comes across the detractor’s claims.

Although you may need to create nuanced variations, deriving from your distinct relationship with each partner and stakeholder, these statements should be consistent and emphasize the same major points.

At least initially, these would all have “potential” for deployment—but not automatically so. This measured approach seeks to avoid fanning the flames of contention until and unless such a public outreach is deemed necessary.

In my client’s case, there was a (relatively slim) chance that the smear campaign had already reached its apex and would fade away. Thus, practicing restraint would avoid needlessly triggering the critic further.

On the other hand, the moment it became clear that the organization would need to issue the statement(s), then it should be prepared to do so.

Regardless of whether further criticisms would ensue, the criticism already leveled would live on indefinitely on social media platforms and wherever the critic had left a trail.

That represents a longer-term issue to address—hence, the creation of a responsive statement (or statements) available to individual inquiries, and, potentially, to broader audiences in different contexts.

  • Make a statement.

With any statement that comes under some shadow of controversy, there is great temptation to lash out. This is particularly the case when an organization and some of its individuals feel they have been unfairly maligned.

It is essential to know where to “pick your battles.” For example, my client had ample evidence—and was tempted to go public with it—that their detractor was spreading falsehoods. However, publicly calling out the detractor would have escalated the conflict and prolonged the crisis. So long as those distortions were not extremely damaging, I advised restraint. My client highly valued moving forward, which would have been hindered by back-and-forth engagement.

Words ought to be chosen skillfully and brim with compassion, conviction, and restraint. Stick to facts that dispel falsehoods. Be brief, resisting the tug of a point-by-point refutation. Shift the focus toward the future, rather than getting drawn into a re-hash of the past.

This is not merely the “high road”—it’s the smart road. It becomes a highly visible opportunity for the organization to “walk the walk” of its mission, vision and character—while also demonstrating that it is moving onward and in a better direction.

  • Emphasize discipline within the organization

The ability to weather these PR / reputational storms hinges in large part on across-the-board discipline. Anyone who chooses their words unwisely, in any context, could undermine the entire organizational effort.

A flippant text, an off-the-cuff unkind remark, a foolish social media post…these are only a few of the many avenues of communication (and potential missteps). Couple those platforms with an undisciplined, or non-existent, filter and you have the makings of a protracted PR nightmare.

Even a minor moment of poor judgment may represent the “weak link” in an otherwise solid chain, with the critic seizing on that one shred of “evidence” as proof of the entire organization’s “guilt” in some regard.

To avoid this scenario, it is imperative to tell all within the organization that there is no room for slip-ups. For example, if someone in your org is asked about the situation, they should know to direct inquiries to the organizational statement(s) that have already been carefully and thoughtfully crafted. Along those lines, all media inquiries should be directed to the Marketing and Public Relations team.

In conclusion, for any organization facing crises from A to Z, the key is to keep your eye on the prize: an end to the saga, with renewed focus on a stronger future that revolves around your core mission.

This post was originally published in the October 14, 2020 edition of Bulldog Reporter. My prior Bulldog Reporter contributions include “Crisis PR Isn’t Black and White” (May 2008) and “Sticking Up for the Client, Sticking Up for the Story.” (October 2013). Through workshops, webinars and columns, I have trained thousands of reporters and PR professionals how to tell stories more effectively.

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