Four weeks ago I wrote about brands and Trump. My argument was that brands should finally stand up for something and distance themselves loud and clear from a man who lacks the most basic forms of decency and civility. I argued this should be a no-brainer for those in charge of protecting reputations who understand the spillover effect of a toxic brand.
The question how brands should deal with Trump has obviously not gone away, but it does seem like the least of all problems right now. The most unqualified candidate ever to run for the U.S. presidency is now President-elect. Trump promised to change America and upset the international order, and we have no reason to believe he did not mean it. Trump won the election because he managed to persuade a large part of the electorate that only he can shake up the distrusted Washington establishment and bring upon real change. The stroke of a PR genius?
Interestingly, PR Pros have been writing for months about ‘what PR can learn from Trump’, suggesting ‘he’s superb at public relations’. The proof points were anything from shaky to outright wrong: his authenticity (he fakes it); his willingness to attack (he does, especially when being criticized); his understanding of timing (supposedly his twitter storms at 3am serve as proof here; that aside he has been largely reactive); the use of his brand (the consumer perception of the Trump brand has significantly plunged – Brand Keys, Oct 2016). And finally, his capacity to target specific audiences (like the “folks” living in that hell of inner cities where you get shot walking to the store).
God Almighty. Here is an opportunity for our profession to unambiguously reject this worst of all demagogues and what do we do? We portray him, to ourselves and the public at large, as acceptable and someone we can even learn from. Seriously? Wasn’t PR all about credibility, about real discourse?
For the record: with four bankruptcies and reported $916 million in losses in 1996, Trump is not even superb at conducting his own business. He is good, however, at convincing millions that knowing nothing, learning nothing, standing for nothing can pass as being ‘smart’.
Trump is an entertainer, and a talented one. But the falsehood of practically everything he said, the distractions, the not-staying on message, the hurling of insults, the bragging, the bullying, denying and doubling down when presented with facts, his insisting on going to three debates unprepared: all that makes him everything but a great communicator. Not even his bridging from “locker room talk” to emails and ISIS made any sense.
If there is something to be learned from the 2016 election campaign then this: we are at this moment in time where we can decide our professional role at the intersection of business, politics and civil society. Do we accept the simple notion that “winning” justifies any and all means? That would be disastrous and in complete conflict with the pursuit of the common good.
In my 25 years in this line of business PR has never enjoyed a good reputation, which is somewhat ironic. They say the hairdresser always has the worst haircut, and I always took it as not wanting to deal with the subject at hand. Now we can undo some of that damage by taking a clear stance and call Trump’s blatant demagoguery for what it is rather than pretending it is best public relations practice because it helped him win.
The mainstream news media are already under fire for enabling Trump’s rise by giving him unchecked and free airtime said to be worth over $2 billion. If the PR industry does not get its best and brightest to dissect the rise of Trump and put a spotlight on the dishonesty that permeated his campaign we really deserve our bad reputation.