Public Relations and Donald Trump make America’s weirdest marriage. In his vividly colourful, surreal life, the Orange Man has used PR to help make him very rich, attack his enemies and propel him into the world’s most powerful job. And yet Trump breaks every PR rule in the book, laughs in the face of conventional public relations wisdom and is a nightmare for any media relations team.As most of the world’s population has now realised, there is nothing ordinary or conventional about Donald Trump. He is not a regular guy. He is a man who is very quick to criticise others but has the very thinnest of skins whenever any criticism, however mild, comes his way. He is aged 70 but behaves more like a spoilt seven year old, constantly complaining to whoever will listen that he is hard done by and it’s so, so unfair!
PR and Media Relations
Therefore, it was not really a surprise this week when Trump started having another go at his “critics”. His whole life seems to have been powered by attacking people he has taken a personal dislike to: the Chinese, the Mexicans, the Clintons, anyone who doesn’t agree with him, the list is seemingly endless. Some might call Trump a hypocrite for this but I believe this would not come close to characterising what’s happening here.
Take the PR and media relations around Trump’s sacking of FBI Director James Comey. I sensed that most of the media was getting bored of the story about Trump aides’ contacts with the Russians. It was a news story that was terminally ill until Trump kindly gave it the kiss of life by unexpectedly blowing out the man who was investigating the matter.
His media relations people hit the crisis management button and came up with a powerful line – that James Comey had only been sacked by Trump on the strong advice of the Deputy Attorney General, which some of the media seemed to buy, until Trump contradicted it in a TV interview, bragging he had always intended to fire Comey.
What is going on here? Trump is not making decisions on sound advice or political logic. He is doing it on personal prejudice and gut feeling. His PR team tries to ameliorate the situation by creating a retrospective argument to defend something that is indefensible. But Trump does not like it, because portraying him to the public and the media as someone who acts on someone else’s advice does not make him sound important or omniscient enough.
So like the vast self-deluded braggart he is, Trump makes his PR people look ridiculous by effectively saying: I did it just because I can. The result of this is to make the most powerful man in the world look clueless at PR and, more important, leadership, his media relations team look disingenuous, and throw petrol on the dying flame of a story.
After this debacle, senior US politicians – Republicans and Democrats – demanded an obstruction of justice investigation into Trump’s alleged attempt to shut down the FBI probe into his former national security adviser, and a tough “Special Counsel”, former FBI Director Robert Mueller, was appointed to probe the entire affair.
Trump’s public relations in response was typical of the man. At first he said no US president in history had been treated so badly. In other words, poor little me! He followed up by saying it was the biggest witchhunt in American history. Poor, poor little me! Watching Trump, who has experienced so much good fortune in his full life, incessantly whinge is a pathetic and sickening sight. If a professional sportsman behaved like that, the world would laugh at him. If an actor did it, he or she would be called a “luvvie” and publicly derided.
Personal Public Relations
Complaining about your lot while blaming others is an unattractive trait in anyone. It is the polar opposite of good personal public relations.
Although she has little in common with Trump, I cannot help thinking of the UK’s You magazine columnist, veteran fashion journalist Liz Jones, who writes a weekly diary generally complaining about her lot. Despite being more successful and, I daresay, better paid than the vast majority of UK print journalists, Jones seems eternally sorry for herself: her boyfriend is not good enough and can’t do right for doing wrong, she’s short of money and being persecuted by the tax man (for reasons which remain unfathomable), and her neighbours apparently hate her.
Her You magazine column is like a weekly tsunami of negativity, and the more negative she is, the more Liz Jones attracts bad things into her life.
As with Trump, the other person is forever in the wrong; it is always somebody else’s fault. Neither Donald nor Liz likes to admit to having caused a bad situation for themselves.
Of course, I am not suggesting that Liz Jones is anything near as egotistical or immature as Trump. That would hardly be possible. Nevertheless, Liz Jones would do better to count her blessings – and take a more positive approach to her life, her relationships and her journalism. Otherwise, how can she ever expect to forge a meaningful relationship with her boyfriend, when she is frequently recounting their arguments in print, from her perspective?
You can’t help feeling that the poor chap should be given a right of reply, an occasional column where the long-suffering “David” writes, unedited, about Liz. That would be interesting. Perhaps in her case though, she thrives on being a train wreck and so does her column, though quite often I find the weekly contents of her head become increasingly unintelligible to follow to the end. As a piece of journalism, I think her column has run its course.
Personal public relations is something everyone should worry about. How other people perceive you makes a massive difference to how you are treated by others. Trump shows this is true even for the highest achievers.A telling glimpse of how Trump’s mind works can be found in his 1980s autobiography, The Art of the Deal, page 110 (paperback edition). A seminal moment occurred when Trump was having a battle with the City of New York over the construction of a proposed new conference centre. Trump wanted to build it on West 34th Street, but the city had other ideas, so Trump concluded: “I decided to call my first news conference.”
He recalled: “I announced, before a ton of reporters, that I could build my convention centre for $110million – or at least $150million less than the city had estimated. . . that raised some eyebrows and even got some attention in the press.”
Hooked on Public Relations and Media Relations
And, so, Trump became hooked on public relations and media relations. He soon discovered that if he courted controversy with a new development, making remarks to incense his opponents, it generated acres of negative publicity which, to his delight, helped the apartments to sell and enabled him to hike the prices.
Publicity and PR Skills
Trump learnt young that “no publicity is bad publicity” – that he would rather have people hate him than not be talked about at all. Even if he constantly complained he was being picked on by this foes or the media.
I don’t know how his current woes will play out. His verbal incontinence – giving away secret information to Russian visitors, for instance – does not help him, but I am not sure his clunky actions and irrational behaviour will be deemed wicked enough to see him impeached. However, the overall impression given by his dearth of leadership and PR skills is of a guy who is completely out of his depth in the White House and will end up totally sidelined by the system.
* The writer is a Brighton-based crisis communication training provider and media relations and media training specialist, working in London and Sussex. This article is his view and not that of any organisation or other individual.