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Ex-White House Flack’s Leap of Faith Backfires

Former White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan dominated the headlines for a brief window last week and racked up book sales.

On its release, McClellan’s book, “What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington’s Culture of Deception,” promptly rocketed to #1 on Amazon.com’s Bestsellers list. The first advance press for the book didn’t hit until the previous evening, when Politico leaked details of the tome.

In the book, McClellan calls out President George W. Bush for relying on “propaganda” to sell the American public on the war against Iraq, and he says reporters bought the Administration’s line without much of a fuss. He also has harsh words for Karl Rove and Scooter Libby, two White House aides who created plenty of controversy with their actions, but whom McClellan publicly defended on numerous occasions.

Not surprisingly, the Bush Administration is trying to distance itself from McClellan and his book.

“Scott, we now know, is disgruntled about his experience at the White House,” said current White House Press Secretary Dana Perino, a former deputy to McClellan. “We are puzzled. It is sad. This is not the Scott we knew.”

McClellan, as numerous commentators have pointed out, is revealing little in the way of new information. The Bush Administration’s decision to invade Iraq was based on faulty intelligence about weapons of mass destruction; Libby was instrumental in outing a CIA agent; and, the Bush Administration – like every other presidential administration – has had its fair share of public relations disasters.

What’s most intriguing about McClellan’s decision to “tell all” and do so in a negative tone is that he was considered a Bush loyalist and to this day he expresses much admiration for the President.

Meanwhile, the most telling statement made by McClellan reminded me of what I heard from PR people who worked at scandalized companies such as Enron and WorldCom.

“As press secretary, I spent countless hours defending the administration from the podium in the White House briefing room. Although the things I said then were sincere, I have since come to realize that some of them were badly misguided,” McClellan wrote.

Print that statement out and keep it handy because it can serve as a reminder of the inherent danger of being a PR person. As McClellan found out, a PR person is often the last to know the truth.

In his role, McClellan was not in a position to set policy. Instead, his job was to package that policy for consumption and defend it against media attacks. It’s no different a role than any PR person plays. We are given information from others and we have to trust that information and the people who supply us with it. It’s a tough position to be in because PR people are typically shut out of the decision-making process that leads to the release of information.

Perino also has made a telling statement, saying, “[The President is] disappointed that if [McClellan] had these concerns and these thoughts, he never came to him or anyone else on the staff.”

McClellan, for his part, suggests that many of his concerns came after the fact, and that it’s only thanks to hindsight that he was able to identify the errors of others and himself.

While McClellan may have been rebuked or fired for raising questions, I believe that for the sake of self-preservation PR people should question policy, strategy, operational decisions and other tenets of business if they feel a mistake is being made.

As the public voice of a company or organization, PR people are often the ones who have the most to say and the least real information. It can be a dangerous leap of faith to make.

This article, written by Ben Silverman, originally appeared in PR Fuel (http://www.ereleases.com/prfuel), a free weekly newsletter from eReleases (http://www.ereleases.com), the online leader in affordable press release distribution. To subscribe to PR Fuel, visit: http://www.ereleases.com/prfuel/subscribe/.

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