Love him or hate him, #alwaystrump or #nevertrump, you’ve got to give The Donald one thing. He won the Republican nomination by defying conventional wisdom and flipping just about every established tenet of PR on its head.
After 25 years in the business, I thought I knew something about messaging, media relations, and the basic do’s and don’ts of communicating with the public. The Donald’s success has made me wonder whether I’m as “expert” as I think. . . and if the media landscape has shifted in some fundamental way that PR people – and marketers generally – best not ignore.
Just to review, here are just a few of the hoary PR rules that The Donald has serially violated:
Embrace a Key Message. I guess you could argue that The Donald’s breakthrough moment was his vow last June to make Mexico build a border wall to keep immigrants out of the U.S. It got lots of attention because it was so provocative, but it’s just one of dozens of provocative positions he’s taken. He seems to have an opinion on everything, and everybody, and he’s not shy about sharing. In fact, you might say The Donald’s messaging for the campaign is centered less on one issue or set of issues than it is on being provocative – on almost every issue.
Be Disciplined. Remember how the media raved about Barack Obama for his steadiness and sense of calm during the campaign/financial crisis of 2008. Trump is the anti-Obama – impulsive, a study in stream-of-consciousness, self-contradictory, at times impossible to follow and always hard to pin down. The only thing he’s disciplined about is his lack of discipline. A huge cohort of Americans loves it.
Don’t Offend. This is pretty much the foundational rule of PR. The Donald has gutted it. He mocks his opponents and calls them names. He courts controversy. His first inclination is to attack. And he never, apologizes – even when he’s clearly crossed a line. His nickname should be “Donald Double Down.”
Cultivate the Media. Even the greenest PR person knows to play nice with the media. After all, reporters, editors and producers decide who gets covered and what kind of coverage they get. You follow their rules, you do what they ask, and occasionally you even suck up to them. Unless, of course, you’re The Donald. Then you insult reporters who question you, refuse to appear in person on their broadcasts, accuse them of bias, and even assault them. And you get rewarded – with more coverage than anyone.
So what does all this PR rule-breaking and the counter-intuitive rewards they have garnered really represent? Maybe nothing. Perhaps The Donald’s “winning” is a “black swan” event, sui-generis, without any underlying lessons to teach us. Or it could be the expression, as some surely believe, of a nativist, anti-establishment impulse that is seeing a resurgence for this or that reason.
I’ve come to believe, however, that it’s an inchoate reaction to the real – and oftentimes destructive – power PR has come to exert over our politics and culture. Go on Facebook or Twitter and say something less than politically correct and see what happens. Tune in to any Sunday morning new show and try to tease out one iota of authentic, unspun political commentary. Try to remember when it wasn’t okay for public figures to create a narrative (read: lie) in order to get a preferred outcome.
It’s enough to make people mad – maybe even mad enough to elect the most un-PC, anti-PR candidate we’ve encountered in our lifetimes.