Politics as PR, Part 2: How Trump Fans the Fire

Politics as PR, Part 2: How Trump Fans the Fire

It hasn’t even been two weeks.

Hard to believe, I know. But it wasn’t even two weeks ago that Sally Yates and James Clapper testified before Congress in the ongoing Michael Flynn investigation. In that time, we’ve been witnessing a presidency implode on a scale not seen since Watergate, and at a clip never seen period. The firing of James Comey on May 8 set off a chaotic, scandal-ridden Rube Goldberg machine, with every day bringing about a new twist, a new wrinkle, a new turn that can’t be unmade.

And there at the center of the swirling and inchoate mess is none other than the sweaty, pulse-veined brow of a sitting president who has no idea how to contain the damage or avoid the perception, however correct, that he has committed the cardinal sin of his personal religion: losing.

For Trump, there is nothing worse. And it’s getting increasingly hard to avoid the implication, what with the appointment of a special counsel to investigate the Comey firing and Russia connection (see Archibald Cox and Kenneth Starr, key players in previous scandals that ended, or almost ended, in impeachment). Trump finds himself unable to make a case for himself, and even the acting FBI director was uninterested in perpetuating Trump’s confused justification for terminating his predecessor.

Oh, but the president fancies himself a fighter, and in fighting, has done little but exacerbate the damage. His ineffective flailing has only thrown the White House into chaos as he undermined his own surrogates by flatly contradicting their justifications for Comey’s firing. And now their external PR campaign has entirely collapsed, leaving the administration with essentially no public voice to contain the damage.

None, that is, but the president’s terse, hostile tweets.

Let’s milk it, shall we?

Politics as PR: Why Trump Can’t Control the Story Anymore

Politics as PR: Why Trump Can’t Control the Story Anymore

The never-ending Summer of Trump got off to an explosive start. It was almost two years ago in front of Trump Tower that Donald Trump announced his intention to run for president with a speech openly calling Mexican immigrants drug-dealing rapists, accusing the Obama administration of flatly lying about the “real unemployment rate,” and betraying a fundamentally outdated (when not blatantly incorrect) understanding of the global situation. It was bizarre, rambling, and bordered on incoherent.

It also made news.

That speech was the beginning of the cycle he perpetuated throughout the campaign and is still attempting to perpetuate to this day: say something inflammatory and ride the resulting press wave. This pattern kept up for the next eighteen months, each new offense earning him more media attention, more supporters, and giving him total control over press coverage. Deliberate or not, calculated or not, Trump kept the string of scandal going so hard and so fast that nothing was ever really able to stick to him, which meant there was never any need for damage control. Nothing hung around long enough to hurt.

But now that he’s president, that seems to be changing. And the firing of James Comey is another great example of Trump’s old strategy blowing up in his face. In my professional opinion, just as he rose, Trump will indeed fall, crash, and burn by the old adage, “no news is bad news.”

United Airlines Has A Bigger Problem Than You Think

United Airlines Has A Bigger Problem Than You Think

United has a big, stupid, obvious mess on its hands.

Big because it dragged a bloodied, ticketed passenger off a plane for the simple crime of wanting to go where he paid to go. Stupid, because it was entirely avoidable. Obvious, because for all our shock, nobody was particularly floored to learn that a major airline had mistreated a paying customer in such a ridiculously over-the-top way.

We live in an era in which everything transpires in real time; communication is immediate and asymmetric. It’s never been harder to control the story, not when everyone has the power to film and mass disseminate in real time at their literal fingertips (an ability that would make news organizations of just a decade ago fall over in jealousy). It’s a simple matter of hitting “Go Live” on Twitter Periscope or Facebook Live and broadcasting to the whole world.

The upshot of all this is that messaging isn’t unidirectional anymore. People are paying attention to a much larger conversation than they once were, and they’re keyed into stories about the abuse of power in ways they haven’t ever been before. That’s a big part of why this story, and others like it, spread so rapidly and reach instantaneous viral status.

It’s a foolish person who says that the airline industry’s standing in American culture is remotely positive. After decades of declining service quality paired with sharply rising prices and the ongoing indignities of security theatre (which, it happens, you can simply pay to avoid, strongly suggesting that airport security is less about security than the implication of it), people resent the hell out of these companies. The incident with United was exactly as unsurprising as it was controversial. Donald Trump is president; the idea that an airline would begin actually assaulting people is already passé before you’ve had time to digest it.

2016's PR Winners and Losers

2016's PR Winners and Losers

Having made a career out of managing crises and PR disasters, I can’t help but see the headlines through a particular lens. With another year gone by, 2016 was yet another fascinating year in the world of PR.

The Failings Of Traditional And Social Media, The Destruction Of Fact, and the Election of a Demagogue

The Failings Of Traditional And Social Media, The Destruction Of Fact, and the Election of a Demagogue

In a post-election analysis, media research firm mediaQuant calculated that Donald Trump earned approximately $4.96 billion in “free” media – compared to just $3.24 billion for Hillary Clinton, and $1.15 billion and $0.7 billion from Obama and Romney in 2012 respectively. “Free” media refers to all media not directly paid for through advertising – examples include online articles, television and radio interviews, broadcasts of campaign rallies, print articles, blog and forum posts, and social media. However, no media is truly free – in Donald Trump’s case, much of his media attention was “earned” through his bombastic remark, abhorrent behavior, and ability to incite rallying cries with racist, xenophobic, sexist, and hateful rhetoric. The media chose to give Mr. Trump air-time because he brought in the ears, eyes, and clicks of the nation – some of whom found security and comfort through his fear mongering, many fearfully seeing him as a dangerous demigod comparable to history’s most horrific leaders, and yet others finding his efforts futile and humorous.

In terms of broadcast media, Trump just narrowly outgained Clinton in “free” media. Still, in a 24-hour TV news format, Trump’s coverage was enormous. According to The GDELT Project’s Presidential Election 2016 Candidate Television Tracker, Donald Trump’s name was mentioned by TV news stations at least three times as frequently as the next candidate since July of 2015. Clinton’s mentions would eventually catch up as we neared the general election, however Trump would on average have substantially more mentions than Clinton on any given day leading up to the election. In a conversation at Harvard University back in October, CNN’s President Jeff Zucker said he had no regrets about how his network covered Mr. Trump and acknowledged that his campaign was a ratings machine. As a bit of a half-measure, Zucker admitted that if he could change one thing about his network's spotlight on Trump’s presidential campaign, he would have shown fewer Trump “campaign rallies in those early months unedited.” He added, “I think in hindsight, we shouldn’t have done that as much.” While several news outlets did work tirelessly to reveal the lies and flip-flops of Trump’s candidacy, the oversaturation of seemingly non-stop Trump coverage helped launch and legitimize his candidacy and vindicate his supporters. Despite its role in Trump’s eventual rise to the presidency, he would nonetheless grow to despise and condemn the very same attention that made his victory possible, urging his supporters away from mainstream media.