PR Lessons

Managing Backlash: ‘Julius Caesar,’ Donald Trump, and Shakespeare in the Park

Managing Backlash: ‘Julius Caesar,’ Donald Trump, and Shakespeare in the Park

A blonde solon in an ill-fitting suit lying dead on the Senate floor, bloody knives held aloft by a cohort of celebrating conspirators. It’s an arresting image, the onstage murder of a man we all immediately recognize as Donald Trump under another name, and in today’s fraught political climate – perhaps more so than at any time in living memory – it’s unsurprising that it has erupted into a firestorm.

It doesn’t matter that other politicos have been cast in the role of the very famously assassinated Julius Caesar in Shakespeare’s legendary play before (so much so that it’s been called a “common trope”), up to and including Obama. 2017 is not like other years, and Donald Trump is not like other presidents. Tensions are high, and inflammatory art has been known to result in real violence. This country feels like a tinderbox, and hushed conversations regarding how exactly the president might be prematurely removed from office frequently accent dinner dates, street corners, and office break rooms. And nobody is entirely sure who they can trust.

This is, I imagine, what pre-war feels like.

And there on the stage, New York’s Public Theater shows the president repeatedly and brutally stabbed to death by his opponents. The resulting conflagration is exactly what you’d expect from a country torn so sharply in two that the opposing sides no longer often speak; for some, this is harmless art. For others, it’s an incitement to violence. And consider that it wasn’t that long ago that our national conversation was “should we or shouldn’t we take to the streets to fight out our differences?”

The news today of the shooting of House Majority Whip Steve Scalise only heightens the urgency of this conversation. The heightened tensions of the day are already boiling over into political violence. The mess The Public Theater has stepped in is extremely serious.

Politics as PR, Part 3: Trump’s Center Cannot Hold

Politics as PR, Part 3: Trump’s Center Cannot Hold

It broke yesterday that Mike Dubke, Donald Trump’s communication’s manager, has resigned, although perhaps you missed that in the kerfuffle over a tweeted typo. This resignation is not surprising; the Trump administration has been beset by an almost daily barrage of scandals which his communications and PR people have been unable to contain. Even ignoring the administration’s early issues like the travel ban, we’re in the midst of almost a month of an endless ratta-tatta-ratta of scandalous disclosures punctuated, like the Battle of the Somme, by the bursting of periodic bombshells. Also much like the Battle of the Somme, every effort to bring it to a speedy conclusion with losses at a minimum has ended ingloriously.

This is essentially where we are right now: a presidential administration best discussed via metaphors to one of the largest, most protracted battles in human history.

The Trump administration is in a bloody war of attrition with breaking news, tending inexorably toward something ominous and undefined. Impeachment? Resignation? A thumping in 2018? It remains to be seen; things at this stage remain dauntingly unclear. But the smoke – the smoke is hard to miss, and we can almost make out a fire if we squint.

So understandably, the administration is in damage control. The resignation of Mike Dubke, whether voluntary and self-initiated or an outright termination, signals as much; the president cannot be thrilled with the almost entirely unobservable results of his team’s efforts to contain the news and change the story. The entire communications team – especially Dubke and White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer – have come under criticism from the notoriously blunt Trump; he believes he has been shortchanged by a staff of incompetents, famously musing that perhaps the daily press briefing should be done away with entirely.

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.