Update: I dusted off this post because the content remains relevant today. The President continues to struggle with the concept of delivering a clear and consistent message. Yet, he’s a “natural” at generating earned media.
Before addressing the question, let’s consider the high-level objectives of the typical communications campaign.
Increase awareness, often in the form of media coverage.
Strive to fortify the brand.
Of course, the ultimate goal is to win people over to your way of thinking so they “buy.”
By this definition, Trump’s unconventional approach to communications has worked. On the awareness front, Trump received roughly $3.4 billion worth of earned media compared to $2.266 billion of earned media for Hillary Clinton during the 12-month period leading up to the 2016 presidential election. And enough people did buy him to put him and his favorite La-Z-Boy chair in the White House.
Since taking the throne, he continues to dominate the news cycle in a way that we’ve never seen before. He’s good TV. Kim Kardashian look like a slacker in comparison. Variety reported last summer that the viewership spike for Fox, CNN and CNBC showed no signs of slowing down with all enjoying double-digit ratings growth across the board. The man says crazy things like his recent proposal of arming teachers with guns as a deterrent to school shootings.
And Trump has established a direct pipeline to the public with his incessant tweeting. He has turned the old adage, “If you don’t have something nice to say don’t say it all” upside down, believing, “If you don’t have something nice to say, tweet it to all.” This combined with his attacks on the mainstream media and taunts of “fake news” have marginalized journalists.
The University of Missouri surveyed over 8,000 consumers last year to find out which publications were trusted. Check out the results below.
Right, CNN and other mainstream media properties have taken a beating.
Even though one could make an argument that Trump’s approach to communications has been effective, I view it as a one-off. Just because Steph Curry can drain three pointers 35 feet from the hoop doesn’t mean that 35-foot jumpers suddenly become de rigueur in the NBA.
Check out this passage from a USA Today op-ed:
“The White House is deep-freezing the news media because it can. It’s nothing new for administrations to try to control the narrative. But he’s the first president to serve in the Age of Twitter. With extensive use of its Whitehouse.gov website and its fluency on social media, the administration can get its message out on its own terms, bypassing the middlemen and women.”
Here’s the punchline: These words appeared back on April 4, 2013 and criticized President Obama for favoring owned media over journalists.
I suppose Mr. Trump has pioneered volume tweeting for a politician, but what have we learned and applied to the profession of communications? We already knew that when famous people call other famous people bad names, it gets attention. We already knew that allowing time for one’s temper to subside increases the probability of saying something intelligent. I just couldn’t find any nuggets of gold to glean from his use of owned media.
Turning our attention to Mr. Trump’s penchant for earned media, keep in mind how he generates those column inches. Train wrecks and tantrums and name-calling generate attention. His presidency has morphed into a reality TV show with viewers continuing to turn in for the potential meltdown.
And since moving into the White House, there’s been an onslaught of communication debacles as he’s cycled through three communications directors in a little more than a year (Sean Spicer, Anthony Scaramucci and Sarah Huckabee Sanders). What we consider PR fundamentals, such as establishing the core message and crafting proof points in support of the core message, have been absent from the Trump administration. As a result, we keep seeing the same cause–effect pattern. The media reports the hodgepodge narrative out of the White House, and Mr. Trump goes ballistic with a rant about fake news. If a corporate CEO behaved this way, the media would ignore the executive. Obviously, journalists can’t stop covering the President of the United States.
Still, he offers one lesson that can be applied to the practice of communications. Trump is real, a trait typically not associated with politicians — or for that matter executives. In other words, there is no difference between who he is as a person and what he says on a public stage.
Too often in their quest to appeal to everyone, companies gravitate toward vanilla behavior. They don’t want to provoke. They certainly don’t want to offend. And the PR function can actually be part of the problem, pummeling the executive to stick with the script. The end result is a sea of sameness.
When it comes to business communications, it’s OK to talk like a real human being. It’s OK to allow your personality to come out. It’s OK to have a point of view, even one that might trigger disagreement. You just don’t have to be obnoxious in doing it.
Circling back to the bigger question — has Donald Trump forever altered the public relations landscape? The answer is no.
There is only one Donald Trump who can pull these communications levers.