Public Relations Costs: Reflecting On The Sadler Scandal and The Toxicity of Those Linked to Political Controversies
“It doesn’t matter, he’s dying anyway….” are the words uttered by Trump Administration communication aide Kelly Sadler. These words sparked a national controversy. Sadler’s remarks were about ailing Senator John McCain and his opposition to controversial CIA Director nominee Gina Haspel, but the whole affair has become a symbol of how disrespectful the political system has become. The scandal, including the Trump Administration’s unwillingness to take responsibility for the words of the official and show some degree of collective shame, is being framed as a new low in civil discourse. The comments are clearly disrespectful and insensitive. What was said, however, is hardly the most offensive thing ever said by a public official. In fact, it is probably one of the least offensive controversial statements issued by a Trump official, especially when considering the President’s past remarks.
Modern politics has, of course, been suffering from a decline in civility for some time. Since Donald Trump entered the political arena, that decline has continually hit one new low after another. The Sadler controversial is controversial, because it is an example of a public official making insensitive remarks about a highly respected elected official and decorated war veteran without any meaningful punitive action from her superiors. Pundits, political elites, and the American People have become accustom to the reality that there are no limits on what figures like Donald Trump can say, but the idea that subordinates are not constrained by any political barrier has yet to solidify. Donald Trump has apparently ignored the need for civil discourse and eradicated the notion of common decency. He has created an environment were the boundaries of civility have no influence over those within his sphere of influence.
In essence, the Trump political era is defined by a lack of political consequences for those who ally themselves with the right factions. Like all political eras, however, the Trump era is destined to die. There will always be unsavory and ill-behaved figures who derive influence from a base of supporters who enjoy their edgy ways, but these kind of people tend to be self-destructive while their supporters tend not to enjoy the same kind of immunity when they engage in the same wayward behavior. For those in the Trump Administration, who seem to be more concerned about leaks than professionalism, the Sadler controversy should be a wake up call. Sadler does not face meaningful internal consequences for her words, but her ill-conceived “joke” has attracted the scorn of the political world. This controversy has probably cost her future opportunities in government and the private sector. In other words, there are nonpolitical consequences and Sadler is now a toxic human resource.
In an era where public figures like Fox News host Laura Ingraham and comedian Kathy Griffin, to name just two of many, have lost major sponsors due to offensive things they have said and done, it is clear that the business world has not moved beyond the politically correct era, even if the political industry has. More than ever, businesses are absolutely terrified by the public relations ramifications of being associated with someone whose offensive remarks have gone viral. Donald Trump is rich enough to absorb the price tag of his controversial ways, but most of his supporters and subordinates are not. They need their jobs and they need to be able to get jobs after they leave the Trump Administration. The ability to find work after leaving the Trump Administration has to be weighing on the minds of every Trump official. For recruiters and human resource managers, the potential public relations costs of hiring such individuals must be weighing heavily on their minds.
Recognizing the damage done to Sean Hannity by his link to Trump lawyer Michael Cohen, there is a very real PR cost to doing business, or having done business, with controversial figures. Because public relations and political blow-back is very random in nature, no one truly knows when a statement will be deemed controversy enough en mass for it to go viral, businesses can only mitigate the risk of PR costs. For some businesses, this means blacklisting anyone connected to anyone controversial, which can also be harmful to the business, controversial itself, and potentially illegal. Businesses attempting to mitigate the costs of public relations issues and recruit valuable human resources must navigate a tricky political landscape. Unfortunately, it is something that can only be done effectively by those who both understand public relations and politics. It also requires talent not tainted by political scandal, which is an increasing rarity in the Trump era.
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