My media day with Donald Trump
As he is now contending for the U.S. Presidency, just for fun I would like to recall my time with past client Donald Trump during 2001 when he was in Canada to announce his future real estate plans for Toronto. It’s a long time ago, but working with a born publicist like him is not the kind of thing that’s easily forgotten (and I made sure of it, too, by keeping pictures and videos from the big day). My job was to work with his organization for weeks beforehand to manage every minute of his time across media contexts, and to personally accompany Mr. Trump as he met the media and other stakeholder constituencies.
It’s been my honor to provide PR services for very senior leaders, including for titans like Bill Gates and George Soros. Over the years, I’ve been asked many times by fellow PR practitioners what it is like to work with such influential people. I’ve consistently answered that the most important thing to remember is that even though they are world famous, these folks are human beings just like the rest of us and they seem to enjoy working with PR professionals who realize that as well. There’s nothing such ‘captains of industry’ seem to dislike more than nervous handlers who act in awe of their celebrity. They want to proceed from one planned scenario to the next with ease and confidence. They want to follow a PR leader, not feel as if they themselves need to guide a follower (especially in unfamiliar territory surrounded by media frenzy, which most places are for such people).
There are a lot of clients out there – especially middle-management – who ‘lord it over’ the PR people and seem to think that they know everything. Some might assume that billionaires act that way writ large. But I have found the reverse to be true. You learn very quickly that such people probably became so fabulously successful in the first place because they maintained open minds with continuous learning. They also ‘get’ the fact that they wouldn’t be shelling out oodles of money for professional services like public relations unless they felt that some value is being added.
This video shows the publicity results of the Trump experience:
I once heard that any good PR person should always keep out of the picture, but with so many media around, and being the handler, that is basically impossible.
For much of their careers, PR professionals work hard to earn engagement with stakeholders such as media in order to generate positive media coverage. Pitching and placing publicity is often an uphill struggle, with calls to journalists that often go unreturned and rejection a constant fact of life. Just earning the coverage – any coverage – is often the objective, with concern for the content a secondary priority amid the general relief that the story appeared somewhere.
This dynamic suddenly changes when the PR pro becomes the designated media contact for a famous person. Then the underlying worry isn’t that coverage won’t appear; it’s fear that the wrong kind will. With saturation media play already a given, then strategy, framing and messaging become key. Nowadays how stories migrate cross-platform via the accelerant of social media is one of the most crucial calculations.
There are more media requests than there is billionaire time in town to accommodate them, and so it is the media who then need to deal with rejection as outlets and opportunities are carefully selected. On one level, it felt strangely exhilarating to help decide who would get to interview Donald Trump or Bill Gates in Toronto (or George Soros in Seoul), but rather than mete out to others the rudeness I had endured from a small minority of journos in past, I took great pains when I was in such a position of unexpected authority to return all calls and express sincere appreciation for the media interest.
Although I don’t support Donald Trump’s politics, and even though he might not recall me now, I remember him well from 2001 and respected him as a first-class client. I was surprised by that at the time, because when I was preparing for the assignment, I asked a friend of mine in Manhattan — who is CEO of a global PR firm — what he had heard about Trump. His two-word answer was a blunt assessment: “Total A**hole!” So I was braced for the worst, but I have to say that Trump was among the best project clients I have ever worked with. He was courteous and well mannered, evidenced intellectual curiosity, sought messaging guidance, respected the local context, acted like a true professional, and he went with the flow.
The only thing out of the ordinary I noticed was how he did not shake hands, a peculiar preference I thought.
This picture shows me at the far right, after getting out of Trump’s limo and leading him through a frenzy of probably fifty cameras of every kind — one of my most exciting days as a PR counsellor for senior leaders.