What We Should Learn from Donald Trump

Donald Trump doesn’t do hand shaking outside the local church. He rarely even stays the night in any one state. Rather than the folksy meet and greets previously the staple of Primary season, Trump opts for huge rallies, a relentless focus on spectacle and an unrivalled ability to court controversy. This is the new political reality for the Republican Party, in fact for the entire American political landscape. Trump has torn up the rules of electoral trail; and now the mavens of the PR world need to reassess the strategies and techniques we had once taken for granted.

By harnessing the power of shock, Trump has forced the world media into the role of unwilling accomplices. How can they not report his words?   In an age of ‘clickbait’ and ever-decreasing attention span, Trump seemingly improvises moments of shock which bypass the intellect and attach themselves to something much more visceral. Whether he is demonising entire religions, berating foreigners or launching personal, colourful and often shockingly crude personal attacks on his opponents, he not only demands attention, he actually provides a form of entertainment. In the same way a playground fight is surrounded by a baying crowd until someone of authority steps in, so do millions of Americans tune in, click on and cheer for Donald Trump’s latest provocation. Except now there is no authority figure to step in and reprimand. Through two very deliberate choices, Trump exploits this opportunity with almost frightening professionalism. Quite simply, he has devised a communications strategy which allows him absolutely to dominate the election, at minimum cost.

His first choice: shamelessness. Trump has very deliberately chosen to be news-noisy; to say hurtful, shocking things; to cajole and bully. His Primary competitors, the very people who would normally hold this behaviour to account, have often been reluctant to provoke one of his devastating tirades. And when they have attempted to play the same game, turning on him in synchronised attack during the debates, they lose, both because they have yet to master the language of raw insult, and because their attacks simply turn any debate into the Donald Trump Hour. It’s all about the Donald.  Meanwhile, the American news media have become hooked on Trump. They turn to him for their regular ratings fix. They may despise themselves for their dirty little habit, but he makes them feel good. He delivers the ratings, and they really don’t care how grubby the packaging. Trump knows this and willingly supplies a fresh dose of high octane coverage every couple of news cycles.

Astonishingly, recent figures from Ad Age show that Trump has spent just $10 million on advertising, compared with almost $85 million by Jeb Bush. Even Marco Rubio had shelled out $49 million. But hey, there you are.  Lean PR can run circles round the bloated budgets of the ad industry! The formula is quite straightforward.  Targeted, easily-digestible content can be created for (comparative) peanuts, and disseminated on the internet. This is not new, and bypassing traditional media outlets is now an established trend. But Trump has added an extra frisson . The content he delivers is so newsworthy, so shocking, so unerringly populist, that he forces the traditional media to relay his message, and so the impact of the original clip is multiplied and multiplied again.

The second choice: positioning. Trump has identified the rising tsunami of anti-establishment sentiment, and ruthlessly exploited it, positioning himself as the angriest, most competent outsider. He has portrayed himself as the Grand Crusader against political correctness. For the past eight years Republican politicians, egged on by the media, have railed against the ‘politically correct’, in the notionally liberal world of an Obama administration. The phrase is used to demonise a Washington that is viewed as unfit for purpose. This has been a magic formula, allowing even the most offensive and shocking remarks to be celebrated as victories against the forces of the politically correct.  The message is simple: Trump is an outsider, not part of the out-of-touch Washington elite and, frankly, he says what is on his mind, even if it isn’t ‘politically correct’. This creates a hideous quagmire for both his Republican rivals and the mass media. To attack him for being politically incorrect or inexperienced is no longer an insult. In fact, it’s an accolade. He has made himself, for now at least, virtually invulnerable to charges that would bring down other candidates.

But maybe Trump understands the public better than they realise. And better than they might like. It’s a cliché on both sides of the Atlantic that “the public aren’t fools”; that there is an innate wisdom in the electorate that enables them to see past the lies, deceptions and mendacity of the political class. The Republicans currently have a petition on their website titled ‘The American People are not stupid’. Yet if the events of the past few months are anything to go by, then maybe that self-congratulatory petition is actually and evidently absurdly wrong. Trump offers very little in the way of policy, yet is the frontrunner in the party election. He reduces great issues to simplistic slogans and invests them with prejudice and bile.  Simple assertion replaces argument, evidence or thought. Counter-argument is abandoned in favour of the much more effective techniques of insult and offence.  And this, apparently, is what huge swathes of the public want. It’s how they need the great issues of our times addressed.  So, what does this say about the public? It would be easy to believe that, in reality, they are remarkably stupid, shallow, ignorant and easily manipulated, especially when the manipulator plays back to them  their own prejudice and bias as part of his pitch.  Or perhaps it is something better than that. Perhaps the public, particularly Trump’s public, are simply tired of box-ticking speeches and technocratic promises. Perhaps they see through the carefully calibrated communications strategies that attempt to cover all the bases while minimising risk. Either way it begs the question: are we in the Public Relations industry overthinking it?

Strip away one’s own feelings and we are left with this: by combining a simple message, picking the appropriate emotional level with which to deliver it, and then disseminating the content in bitesize chucks, Trump has forged a formidable PR strategy. This may all sound rather textbook, but once you factor in the personality-driven spectacle of Trump, we see that he has actually undone many of the rules of political PR. His public appearances are not crisp or manicured. His speeches are meandering. When asked tough questions about say, foreign policy, he delivers responses that are defined by what is absent, a choice example being ‘I will be so good at the military your head will spin’. Clearly this is not a pre-planned statement sourced from policy commissions, run-past consumer groups, copy approved by backers and moulded by press officers. Trump relies on gut punches of angry sentiment while promising the world. And it is exactly what his audience wants to hear. It’s human, unpolished and it is not what you hear the folks back in Washington saying.  And it’s certainly not what their PR advisers are recommending. But maybe now, those PR advisers are coming to recognise that they need to re-write their rule books.

Whatever the outcome of this campaign, we in the PR business must learn a few lessons from Trump. Clinical strategies and perfectly worded press releases are meaningless without persona. As we strive to become more professional and scientific in our approach, we run the risk of homogeneity or blandness. He has demonstrated the raw power of message amplification; he has perfected the art of the retweet. By combining an astute knowledge of his audience with the strong personality they crave, he dominates the news and demands attention.  And he has perhaps taught us worrying and distasteful lessons too. If you flavour your arguments with the prejudice and fear that is already in the hearts of your audience, you can say almost anything. They will accept and believe.  You are their man, giving voice to their prejudice and bigotry.  You and the audience will own each other.

By breaking the orthodoxy of PR, Trump has created unassailable content and delivery systems. Ultimately though, the rise and rise of Trump has proved one thing; that with something as mercurial and unpredictable as public opinion, there is no such thing as a rulebook.

Terence Fane-Saunders
March 2016

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