New York City – The first thing that needs to be said is that Hope Hicks is twenty-nine years old.
Hicks’s relative youth needs to be stated upfront because she’s caught up in a scandalous administration that has felled people with far more experience and expertise than she; politics is nasty even when you know what you’re doing, and I very much get the impression that Hicks found herself in the Trump family whirlwind and, before she knew it, was White House Communications Director – a post two others had vacated in under a year before her, and which her immediate predecessor held for less than two weeks. In other words, the Trump administration takes its toll on battle-hardened veterans, and Hicks was prepared neither for Washington, nor the unique stresses of the Trump era.
Her failures, then, may be forgivable. Or at least not totally incomprehensible.
Imagine, if you will, her career arc; a neophyte PR professional-turned-model is discovered by Ivanka Trump, who asks her to model for her clothing line before whisking her into the Trump organization, where she quickly becomes one of Trump’s primary advisors and shoulders to cry on; he then embarks on a quixotic presidential campaign that manages to win against all reason; the boss she has closely served is now President of the United States, and she is a top West Wing official. All of this in the space of less than five years. There are few career arcs as startlingly exponential. Which makes her stunning fall all the more dramatic.
Her admission last week in front of a House panel to telling “white lies” on behalf of her boss, which precipitated her almost immediate exit from her role in the West Wing, did profoundly more damage than she likely suspected at the time; I found it nothing short of baffling, not that she had admitted to lying, but that she had done so at all. Why did I find it so baffling? Because of what PR is supposed to be.
It’s entirely possible I have an overly rosy and idealistic vision about what public relations’ role is in an organization, but permit me that; I’ve been working in the industry for 35 years now and quite literally wrote the book on it. And one of my first principles – really, one of the entire industry’s first principles – is that lies are dangerous. They expose an organization to liability, damage public trust, and create fields full of brushfires that need to be put out. Public relations isn’t about lying, contrary to popular imagination. It’s about communicating strategically, but truthfully. And that’s key to what makes the entire enterprise not only worthwhile, but even effective; it’s about leveraging, not manipulating, public trust.
The problem, then, with Hicks is the sense of manipulation and deceit that the Trump administration exudes, and which it is painfully evident she did nothing to alleviate; rather, she by all accounts has actively participated in it, including helping to draft the initial (and erroneous) White House statement regarding her boyfriend, former White House Staff Secretary Rob Porter. In short, she failed in her professional duty. Hicks doesn’t at all project a savvy Washington spin artist, which is part of what makes this so frustrating. It’s easy to say that she got sucked into Trumpworld, a tightly-sealed enclosure to which the outside world has only occasional and furtive access; but to say that is to deny that she is an adult capable of making moral or ethical decisions, and to dismiss her as not only a PR professional, but as a rational actor as well. That is not something I am prepared to do.
PR professionals have an obligation to serve as the conscience of an organization, an outsider in a world of insiders, someone looking out the window and not at the balance sheet. In short, what a PR pro is supposed to bring to the table is a sense of mission and perspective that is often lost in the day-to-day of running a complex organizational structure. The systematic disinformation coming out of the executive branch reminds me of nothing quite as much as Volkswagen’s corporate culture during the era when it was deliberately and knowingly deceiving emissions inspectors; a little perspective would have been very nice there. And while the false claims of low-emission diesel engines may have sold Volkswagen a bunch of mid-range compact carts, it ultimately cost the company billions of dollars and put it on its back foot in terms of its relationship with the public. It’s still rebuilding.
Lies are deadly, and it was Hope Hicks’s job to stop them. But there is little evidence she ever tried. Rather, there is every sense that she, for whatever reason, played the Trump game to the best of her ability, and why not? Honesty is seen as disloyalty; disloyalty gets you targeted and booted out the door. Imagine that you’re Hope Hicks, and you want to advance your career, which has risen meteorically in just a few years thanks to the beneficence of a man who has become the President of the United States, who has taken you in as a therapist-cum-surrogate daughter-cum-confidante, perhaps it would have taken decades of experience and maturity to stand up for the basic commitment to truth that is at the root of the entire enterprise of public relations. But I suspect not.
Would it have been difficult? Yes. Destructive of her career in the immediate? Yes. But, like Volkswagen, it’s not just the crime; it’s the coverup. The damage – the long-term, structural, and conceptual damage to the presidency as an institution, and if we’re being honest, as a brand – is incalculable, and that is something she contributed to in her West Wing role, rather than serving as its brakes. Stopping an organization from careening wildly out of control is one of the central roles of public relations; if nowhere else, her tragedy lies in failing to do so.