I’m still thinking about this press conference about POTUS’s Covid-19 care from Saturday. Let’s assume for the moment that the balance Dr. Sean Conley was trying to strike was between the patient’s confidentiality and the public’s right to know, rather than a deliberate attempt to mislead the public. (I know you might not believe this. I’m skeptical, too.) But stay with me. From a media training perspective Conley made some critical errors here that would very quickly catch up with him.
First, he didn’t start with a statement about what kind of detail he could and could not provide, given patient confidentiality. He was willing to give some stats, including heart rate, blood pressure and blood oxygen saturation levels, but not others, including his fever temperature, or his lung testing results. What does that do? Focuses everyone in on those bits of information.
It got worse when he tried to avoid a direct answer to whether the president had ever received oxygen. Reporters came back multiple times, (including at 8:02 and 11:39) to this topic because it was clear he was obfuscating. No oxygen on Thursday, Friday or Saturday. It was only a matter of time before it came out that Trump had received oxygen twice, crushing any future credibility. Conley (sort of) got away with his cute answers during the press conference because reporters kept changing the topic on each other. If he’d been facing a single reporter, he would have been pinned down right away.
Let’s be clear. What the doctor was asked to do was very hard: reassure the country that their president was in good shape without actually lying. But reassurance comes from transparency. You can’t pick and choose what facts you are willing to give and not give in a crisis situation. Either you are open or your are not. In this case, saying that the president had been given oxygen before arriving at Walter Reed, but that it’s no longer necessary and he’s doing well, would actually have been more reassuring, not less.
3 takeaways for CEOs in crisis situations from the doctor’s efforts:
- Get your facts lined up. Have a timeline. Know what day of the week is.
- Set the boundaries on what you can and can’t answer before you take questions.
- And don’t be cute. You will always get caught out eventually.