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How Trump ripped up the media relations playbook – and what this means for PR folk

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Donald Trump has been in office just over a month but has already broken almost every rule in the press relations playbook used by communication advisers, media trainers and PR gurus for decades.

Instead of telling the truth, Trump has lied with such shameless abandon that a whole new lexicon has had to be invented to describe the parallel universe the president lives in. Post-truth has elevated baloney to the level of the possible, alternative facts are wheeled out to disprove demonstrable evidence and fake news is used as an insult against anyone who dares question the president’s policies.

Instead of courting the electorate, as most strategists would advise, Trump has gone out of his way to insult large chunks of it. Women, Mexicans, Muslims, the media, the disabled and even Swedes have all been on the receiving end of his vitriol, upending the belief that you don’t win clients or votes by haranguing your audience.

Finally, instead of currying favour with the press, as most media advisors would counsel, Trump has waged war on it. He has called venerable outlets like the New York Times and CNN ‘failing media’ and railed against the ‘fake news’ churned out by trusted sources like the Washington Post and NBC. Breaking a tradition dating back to Thomas Jefferson – who once declared “were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter” – he has lambasted the very idea of a free press holding truth to power, slamming journalists as ‘the enemy.’

So what do Trump’s tactics mean for media relations practitioners?

It is too early to say with any certitude, but a few things are already clear from his victory and that of the Leave campaign in Britain’s June 2016 referendum.

 

 

Firstly, established media hold less sway than they once did. A year after his election as Labour leader in 1994, Tony Blair flew to Sydney to win over Rupert Murdoch, publisher of the Sun, Britain’s best-selling daily. It is difficult to imagine that happening today with newspaper circulation in freefall and social media providing politicians like Trump with a powerful publishing platform. Indeed, November’s election in the United States proved that the opinions of newspapers are almost completely irrelevant, with only a dozen out of over 600 newspapers backing electoral college winner Trump.

Secondly – and unfortunately – shooting the messenger appears to work. With trust in the media hovering around 20% – the lowest since records began – blaming the press and railing against journalists is the equivalent of battering a boxer punch-drunk on the ropes. Journalists will only be able to defend themselves better if they regain the trust of the public they are supposed to serve.

Thirdly, rebutting lies reinforces them. Despite the fact that Trump is a serial fibber, telling whoppers at the rate of roughly 20 a day between September 15 and election day according to Toronto Star reporter Daniel Dale, the small army of fact-checkers employed to disprove these lies had no discernible influence on public opinion. Instead, the more outrageous Trump’s claims and the more strident his views the more his messages have been amplified by fans and foes on Twitter and the more he has set the daily news agenda.

Trump’s win – and the victory of the Leave camp in Britain – raises some thorny questions for communication advisers, media trainers and political strategists:

  • If rebutting lies reinforces them, what is the best way to challenge the fibbers and champion the truth?
  • Does fact-checking make any difference when research shows emotion trumps fact and appeals to the heart are more powerful than those to the head?
  • In a world of filter bubbles should communicators aim to challenge their audience’s beliefs or reinforce them?
  • Does it still make sense to spend so much time courting the media when Trump’s win proves they can be bypassed?
  • Is the type of raw, unfiltered communication preferred by Trump’s tweets and Farage’s provocations more effective than the focus group-tested messaging matrixes of slick-suited PR advisers?

 

As the answers to these questions will determine how politics and communication is conducted in much of the world for the years to come, we’d be interested in your feedback below, on our Twitter or Facebook feeds or via email.

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About Gareth Harding

Clear Europe Managing Director and head of Missouri School of Journalism's Brussels Programme. Former journalist and speechwriter.

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