Donald Trump has given a free masterclass on public relations and here are 5 key lessons for business owners anywhere

By Jim James,

Founder EASTWEST PR and Host of the SPEAK|pr Podcast

Looking at things from a PR point of view, there are many lessons to be learned from how Donald Trump has built his brand. One could also argue that he’s also done a great job in destroying his brand, but that’s another matter to be discussed. An analysis of Donald Trump can be done using the five-stage methodology of SPEAK|pr: Storify, Personalise, Engage, Amplify, and to Know. 

SPEAK|pr: A case analysis of Donald Trump

First, in terms of storification, what Donald Trump has managed to do is to convince a sizable amount of the American population that they are victims of a plot to remove their well-being, their rights, and their guns. He managed to tap into an anxiety that exists within a certain group of people in America that their well-being is under threat. He took an underlying narrative and built on that. When you’re thinking about building a story for your own business and looking at how you can tap into a narrative that already exists, it’s much easier to flow with the water than to swim upstream. Donald Trump has done that. He’s tapped into the zeitgeist that was already in America in certain sections, and he has made a story of that. 

Photo from BBC

Under personalisation, Trump has clearly understood the avatar or character profile that he’s talking to. Donald Trump, a white Anglo-Saxon male from New York, seems to be really appealing to white men who are less educated or the general audiences in rural areas, but this alone wouldn’t justify the volume of votes that he obtained. Some of Trump’s avatars, such the ones that were seen roaming the halls of Capitol Hill and the QAnon group wearing the horns and waving the Confederate flag, obviously are bonded to him. The personalisation of the story, understanding that these people want leadership, want to believe in being great again, has undoubtedly resonated deep and wide across America. 

The 3 elements to creating engaging content

When it comes to engagement, Trump managed to create engaging content. In SPEAK|pr, there is a need to create compelling content, which has three simple elements in order to be shared widely: it must be new, simple to understand, and relevant or context-sensitive. On the concept of being new, Trump talked about "draining the swamp." He introduced something new, which was to basically start again, throw out all those corrupt and unscrupulous, self-interested politicians. The narrative that he created was that he was going to get all these old crocodiles to "leave the swamp." This billionaire managed to convince working-class white voters and some Latino and some African-Americans that he understood them and would defend their rights.

On the concept of being simple to understand, this is where Make America Great Again or MAGA is a classic example of an advertising slogan which is at once evocative, simple, and universal. The use of colors of white on red and red on white, the use of primary colors contrasting together with this central theme of making America great and restoring people to their former fortunes was very powerful, but also very simple. In fact, it was so simple, you could fit it on a hat. 

Photo by C Drying on Unsplash

The third element of making content powerful is that it is relevant or context-sensitive. Trump played on the growing anxiety amongst white people in America at the loss of jobs and the loss of their domestic and international prestige. There’s the Black Lives Matter campaign, for example, and how that created threats across American society to the entrenched interests of certain groups of society, predominantly white Anglo-Saxon men. Trump identified that these people are actually going backwards in socio-economic terms and political terms, so his message about making America great again was about helping the average white American male reestablish the position they had enjoyed in the 50s but lost through the 60s, 70s, and 80s.

Amplification and Knowing

Amplification is where Trump showed mastery. With a Twitter following of over 80 million, he utilised that and ignored traditional media. That in itself was fairly radical, but he went one step further and called the traditional media the enemy of the people. Freedom of speech and the independent press are enshrined in the American Constitution, but Trump almost de-legitimized the independent media with the simple term "fake news." Hundreds of years of history and editorial integrity were destroyed by these two words. In this way, Trump’s genius has been to label his competitors with these very simple and targeted jibes, play to this audience that has got a natural fear, and alloy them together around a common enemy.

Photo from DW

In bypassing traditional media, Trump was able to install his own message of MAGA directly into the hearts and minds of his avatars or followers. Without any filtering, which would normally take place through journalists, editors, and publishers, Trump made Twitter his direct channel to people, aside from using Facebook, Instagram, and Twitch. It’s this ability to go direct that is a learning for all those involved in marketing that businesses can own their own media channels, and those can become as powerful as the traditional earned media coverage as long as one can build a community following. This can be compelling enough that people encourage and invite others to a point that it becomes an amazingly powerful tool. 

The fifth stage is knowing the measurement. In SPEAK|pr, this is made possible by using the Active Communications Index which measures how much work is being done by the team to communicate on a day-to-day basis. In the case of Trump, his own metric has been political polling. Naturally, he has got vanity metrics about followers and so on, but because of his own media and his own audiences reflecting only the successes that he believed he was enjoying, it was impossible for him to comprehend the failure at the polls. The lesson here then is that everybody who is a business leader must look at their own numbers with objectivity, but also to expose themselves to the numbers they may not like. 

In this case, comparing yourself with others is good

In the ACI Evaluator, there is an evaluation tool where companies complete a survey on how much activity they undertake each week. This is then benchmarked against other companies which have undertaken activity in the same time period and of the same scale. Absolute numbers are important, but relative numbers are even more so. How much work done in public relations is good to know, but the question is, is it as much or more or less than the competition? Comparing your brand’s own activity with that of your competitors is key. Evidently, the hubris of Trump was that he wasn’t looking at anybody else’s numbers other than straight polling, but he had bought into his own parameters, content, and guidance.

Ultimately, people, such as voters, consumers, and staff, have a choice. They don’t vote or come to work or buy according to the absolute number that is put out. They buy according to the relative amount, how much work was done compared to a company’s competitors. It is for this reason that the Active Communications Index emphasises the need to look at how much work is being done not just of the brand but also of the brand’s competitors, because with failure to monitor one’s competitors, then victory isn’t guaranteed. 

Donald Trump and his architects have understood that a sustained focus and a simple message shared to a receptive audience consistently can carry tremendous weight. As you think about your own company and its public relations and marketing strategy, it’s worth looking at the skills that Trump and his team have brought to bear on American politics, in fact, on the global political stage, but also at the way they’ve transformed traditional communications. Whilst we may not like what Trump and his cohort have used these skills for, one has to recognise that they’ve been extremely effective; a man with no political office became president and garnered just under half of the popular vote in America. It’s a pretty stunning attainment, whether or not you like what he’s done with it. 

Indeed, Trump hasn’t just managed to change the perception of the Trump brand, but also of the brand of America, and this could be his greatest PR coup, following his aborted coup of Capitol Hill. Like everybody around the world that has witnessed these events in America with large measures of sadness and surprise, there has also been some learning that can come out of this. So, for anyone engaged in marketing a business, organizations, or even a country, Trump and his associates have taught us many lessons, and the SPEAK|pr program creates a structure to evaluate those practices.

This article is based on a transcript from my Podcast SPEAK|pr, you can listen here.

Cover Photo by Dalton Caraway on Unsplash

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