The fracas at the Lincoln Memorial last week, where the Indigenous People’s March intersected with the March for Life and a group of Black Israelite hecklers doing what they do, is actually an incredibly boring story, which is why it was so easy to spin. It’s not even a story: It’s a situation captured on video by a myriad of involved parties and taken out of context by still more interested parties.
For a crisis communications professional, that makes this an ideal situation: Everyone was already projecting what they wanted to see on the situation, so all you need to do is convince some significant number of people watching that what you wanted them to see was right there all along.
At its core, after all, it’s just a video still: The image of a seemingly wholesome-looking white male teen staring derisively at an elderly Native American man — a picture-perfect encapsulation of the “snowflake culture” often invoked by conservative Twitter — that went viral because it sends the message that Trump-style hate isn’t confined to the Viagra crowd (and possibly because it was promoted by a fake account with a cute female avatar pretending to be a California school teacher).
Let’s get one thing straight first: No one in the viral MAGA-hat confrontation video is an angel, not the foul-mouthed Black Israelites, the chanting, testosterone-and-anti-abortion-rhetoric-fueled MAGA kids, not the old man with the drum. They are all just doing their things, for better and sometimes for worse. Welcome to America.
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But after getting CNN news anchors to publicize the teen’s personal statement (which you can be sure was written by a committee of experience hardened communications experts) and obtaining interviews on "NBC Nightly News" and the TODAY show, many Americans are rightly asking what sort of dark magic Nick Sandmann’s public relations team had to invoke to make this go away.
It’s not magic; it’s just P.R.
A great opening gambit here is to take advantage of existing narratives about the media — and, after years of conservatives hyping the idea of fake news and crisis actors, that was easy enough. A chaperone who was present during the situation on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial said, "Our boys were set up for this event." (Such a scenario is about as likely as President Trump changing parties.)
Sadly, this species of messaging relies on the old racist thinking that a cabal of Jews run the media, banking and, with those two things in hand, the world but, in 2019, resorting to such dog-whistling stereotypes is only a problem when people on the left do it.
Next, offer a plausible explanation with which many Americans not in-the-know about crisis actors will buy. I am guessing from the school’s admitted recent history of encouraging their students to wear full-body blackface to sporting events that the Covington Catholic High School spirit chant would make most liberals want to shrivel up and die, but that seemed to be the idea when the kids decided and their chaperones signed off on chanting it to the Black Israelites. The PR spin now: Our kids were upset by the angry black men cursing them out, so we told them it was all right to self-soothe with their Catholic school battle cry; there was nothing political about it, and the Native man walked in afterwards. As for the tomahawk stuff, just say it’s not clear; maybe they were doing some dance thing from Instagram.
The next task is discrediting Nathan Phillips — the Native American man. There’s no need for snark here at all: Just indicate that old dude stuck his nose in where it didn’t belong, and let others imply that, by doing so, he became just as bad the situation he walked into.
Finally, when you’ve laid the groundwork for its acceptance, release a statement that takes advantage of your advance work, allowing for the most generous interpretation for a media machine desperate to show Trump supporters journalistic fairness.
The rapid-response crisis statement released by Nick Sandmann does just that: One gets the impression that these kids were simply the victims of not being in Kentucky, and thus totally misunderstood. “I was not intentionally making faces at the protestor. I did smile at one point because I wanted him to know that I was not going to become angry, intimidated or be provoked into a larger confrontation.”
But come on. Was the kid fronting for his friends? Yes. Was the smile mediagenic in a cheese-grater-to-the-knuckles sort of way? Yes. Is this story different from the viral trajectory of Alex from Target? Yes, because the kid’s parents hired a P.R. firm created by a former Mitch McConnell staffer to make it go away, and it worked because the nation is currently more divided than antebellum America, and the clarion call to the masses in the middle has been against social justice for everyone and for comity and understanding, which Trump supporters claim they’ve lacked.
The spin worked, both because it feeds the narrative that Trump supporters are all misunderstood (and it’s the job of liberals to understand them), and because there are a bunch of videos with a muddle of people from very different walks of life, all of them living their best lives (heckling people, showing off for their friends, drumming for peace) at the same time, which underscores the current situation: One person’s best life in this America is another’s nightmare.