A publicist president
“A disruptive innovator, using social media and the genius for publicity to win a presidential election on the cheap”
— The Economist Lexington column on Trump, 1/7/17
When I spent the better part of a day with then-client Donald Trump doing his PR in Toronto many years ago (story here), I remember thinking at the time that he is a born publicist with an amazing ability to attract attention and leverage it to promote his own purposes.
Well, today this same man is being sworn in as the 45th president of the United States, having used many tricks of the public relations trade to communicate his candidacy since he entered the race in 2015. While the new American President is not a PR professional, his nose for news, sense of story and penchant for publicity nonetheless make him seem like an old pro flack.
Love him or loathe him, like it or not, and for better or worse, Trump shows us the fearsome power of PR methods for mass persuasion just as surely as Edward Bernays did with the ‘Torches of Freedom’ campaign in the 1920s which helped convince millions of women to take up cigarette smoking under the guise of empowerment. Some might argue that Trump has not been doing PR so much as engaging in something much more sinister; namely, ‘propaganda’ (also the title of Bernays’ seminal book of 1928).
Actually propaganda did not really become a pejorative until the monstrous Joseph Goebbels was Minister of Propaganda in Nazi Germany. Before then, public relations and propaganda were used like synonyms almost interchangeably and many communication systems employed by ethical people to tell the truth (which we have come to call ‘public relations’) were often the same as the technologies used by unethical people to tell their big lies (which is now known as ‘propaganda’).
Indeed, in the early part of the 20th century, the forces of both good and evil used the mass media of print, movies and then radio to persuade the people like their present-day successors in the 21st century are using social media platforms.
Speaking of which, not long after the election, I saw Trump on 60 Minutes where the incoming President stated his opinion that social media is the “modern form of communication…where it’s at,” perhaps a more mighty force than money in determining campaign outcomes. Trump’s digital director Brad Parscale was even quoted as saying “Facebook and Twitter are the reason we won this thing” (Wired, 11/15/16).
Certainly Trump has excelled at capitalizing on social media as no executive has done before. Despite some of his ‘anti social’ antics during the campaign, in Trump we have one of the most ‘pro social’ CEOs ever to use the new media for leadership communication.
There are lessons and warnings here for senior leaders and public figures. When used to inspire or to inflame, the power of social media is undeniable. Earlier this year, before the US election, my new firm Signal Leadership Communication did a public opinion poll and we found that people regard social media as the most dangerous threat to one’s public image, more so than any other communication medium (ahead of TV, online news, and print).
Should CEOs now recognize the power of social media for their own leadership communication, and start using it responsibly? I would say the need for that has become obvious. But should they imitate and use it exactly like Trump does? ‘No way Jose.’ Not unless they want to get fired by the board, sued by shareholders, or boycotted by consumers.
“Social media has become a key part of my leadership strategy. Our lawyers said it was a terrible idea for me to tweet, but I ignored them. This is no game. It’s a way of driving my business.”
Whereas Trump is a sensational showman, a shameless promoter inviting onlookers to gape at a never-ending public spectacle of car crashes in a smash-up derby that he self-directs. The incoming President is the King of the publicity stunt. The Trump tactics of half-truth and smear have been undeniably effective. He routinely devises re-direction strategies that keep one step ahead of the news, and the media business – despite being wiser than ever to his nefarious ways – keeps turning his tweets into headlines and chyrons. He knows how to stir the pot and get people to boil, or as one of his top troll supporters put it in a recent New Yorker article: “Conflict is attention. Attention is influence.”
For ethical reasons (to which I subscribe), there has been a hushed, horrified reluctance in the PR industry to identify with Trump’s tactics, but this is a man who has repeatedly masqueraded as his own PR guy – the infamous John Miller – and clearly sees publicity as a sign of one’s success (e.g. this tweet “Good news is Melania’s speech got more publicity than any in the history of politics especially if you believe [as Trump clearly does] that all press is good press).”
Actually our communication craft has been embraced by Trump during his whole career, and yet we PR professionals are rightly repelled by the deliberate deceptions. I can’t see even a fine line between Trump’s demagoguery and what he has called “truthful exaggeration.”
Trump is not the only famous celebrity I know who conflates PR with publicity (the latter is one outcome of the former), and concomitant with the dangerous decline in the mainstream media, the term ‘publicist’ has actually became somewhat unfashionable and almost a retro moniker as it isn’t seen as being as sufficiently ‘strategic’ and sophisticated as some PR folks imagine themselves to be.
It’s not as if Trump is the first prevaricator to use propaganda in politics (he also just defeated a candidate not exactly renowned for always telling it straight). His bald-faced lies bother me profoundly (especially as a father of young children), but let’s not forget that there is a lot of deceit to go around in politics and a some hypocrisy on this topic within the PR industry.
Most PR pros are ethical and honest, but it is also not rare to run into consultants (or to learn of case studies) where exaggeration and misleading communication were part of the picture. It’s also not as if more than a few PR executives have never told a few tall tales in their time. There are even very senior PR leaders who, in some cases, I have personally known to be less than honest people when it serves their interests to lie. But even they can see how Trump has taken manipulation and confidence trickery to an alarming new low where the ends of power have been used to justify shameful means.
Fortunately, the vast majority – especially the next generation of PR professionals coming up now – proudly wear their commitment to ethics and honesty like a badge of courage and that augurs well for our industry’s long-term prospects. I have seen an almost united front in our trade against Trump’s application of our techniques for deceitful purposes.
All my life in PR, many in our profession have complained that PR isn’t taken as seriously as it should be with all this constant handwringing about the perceived powerlessness of the PR person (especially compared to lawyers with their higher hourly billing rates and advertising people with their bigger campaign budgets).
Now with Trump, the awesome power of publicity has been demonstrated for all to see, as never before. For much of my career, I have marketed PR services using slides like this one from 2006 (which I had been using at my previous agencies since starting my career in 1990) to show that clients should invest more money in earning media coverage with PR versus buying media coverage through ads.
To the measurable tune of roughly $2 billion dollars, Trump has shown that what we PRs have been saying all our careers is undeniably true. What a pity that the proof we have comes from such a sordid source.
Ironically, though, Trump has shown the shortcomings of some classic PR and communications techniques, such as traditional media training and key messages for example.
One thing that people like about Trump blasting away on Twitter is that they ‘know’ it’s ‘really him.’ True, his tweets can be toxic and awful, but in a certain peculiar way there can also be a refreshing candor about such raw communication.
People are seeing through a lot of excessively obvious ‘spin’ and becoming fed-up with manufactured image-making artifice. Trump has exploited that in what seems an ultra-authentic way. Politicians and public leaders like CEOs who are over-produced and too blow-dried ‘perfect’ look artificial and are definitely out-of-style.
Whether it’s PR, propaganda or publicity — whatever you call it — this is what Trump has used to get what he wants and now he is the most powerful person in the world. As one of my business partners likes to say: “It is what it is.”
“It” increases the responsibility of us PR professionals to adhere to ethics and be transparent so the public understands the methods being used to influence them. This is also a wake-up call to senior PR leaders who may talk a good game about social media, but don’t feel its force in their bones.
In 2015 (just before Trump announced his candidacy), I gave a speech in Hong Kong at an anti-corruption conference, which contained the following two slides, which have aged pretty well since then:
Social media is emotional media, and the Trump case study shows how that dynamic can be exploited.
A friend of mine in California recently summed up the situation well (and I paraphrase) when he said:
“As a society, we have barely begun to grapple with the implications of what social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook are doing to our civilization. Things have been turned upside-down so fast that nobody knows for sure where this is taking us. Figuring this out successfully is one of the most important world challenges of the next few years.”