PR Pros Take On A President

 

Has public relations finally won the respect of journalists? Sure, PRs and media work together, and we need each other. But the relationship between “flacks and hacks” is an odd and uneasy symbiosis. That’s why a recent piece in the Columbia Journalism Review about PR professionals and the war between our 45th president and the press was so interesting. David Uberti’s “PR Flacks May Be the Media’s Secret Weapon” outlines the recent confrontations between Trump and two of his favorite targets, alleged “fake news” purveyor CNN and the newspaper he calls the “failing” New York Times.

Trump’s efforts to discredit the press, both individually and as an institution, have a train-wreck type of fascination, and they’re often entertaining. But they’re also dangerous, both for the White House’s own credibility, and for the public who depend on media for news. Uberti makes a subtle but important point about the challenges facing major media companies.

How should the press fight back against a media-savvy president? The fourth estate has the obvious advantages of airtime and ink, yet it has been weakened by the fragmentation of its audience, the changing advertising environment, and a general cynicism among the public. Trust in media institutions has never been lower.

Tensions have escalated since Sean Spicer’s initial press briefing where he attacked the media, and working journalists have responded individually. CNN’s Jake Tapper, for one, hasn’t shrunk from calling out the administration for its own brand of “alternative facts.” When reports hit that he was a GOP target after a tough interview with Kellyanne Conway, Tapper fired back by taking over the #TapperDirtFile hashtag with silly mock-revelations, and it quickly devolved into a gag trending topic.
But it’s tricky for a working journalist to be returning incoming fire.  When you throw mud – even in self-defense, even with 140-character wit – you invariably get dirty.

That’s where the media organizations and their teams come in. We in PR like to talk about how every brand is now a media company, but every major media company is also a brand. Like any other consumer products, they stand for something. It falls to the communications team to protect the integrity of those brands, and to reinforce other attributes that help them stand apart from direct competitors as well as frenemies like Facebook and Snap.

When Trump criticizes Boeing or Nordstrom, their corporate communications teams spring into action; in fact, in boardrooms all over the country, PR people are running through crisis management exercises to prepare for a presidential tweet or an off-the-cuff comment that can cost days of executive time and a few million in stock market value.

There are teams of specialists behind the big media brands, too, and advantages to using PR experts if you’re under attack. It keeps their journalists at arm’s length, so they can focus on reporting and don’t get caught in the crossfire more than necessary. Even more importantly, skilled PR pros are strategic thinkers, and their focus is purely on internal and external communications. They’re trained to issue thoughtful public responses under time pressure and withering scrutiny, and to think ahead to the next move from an often-hostile White House. Like those raised in a campaign war room, they’re accustomed to today’s hyper-accelerated news cycle and bring to the task a deep understanding of how media work. It’s no small irony that the elite-media-as-enemy strategy deployed so well by Trump’s team was born with right-wing radio and honed by Breitbart News Network, whose former executive chair Steve Bannon is the president’s right-hand man and chief advisor.

There are no clear winners or losers in the battle between the press and the president, at least not yet. But the stakes are higher than they’ve ever been, and it’s good to see PRs earning credit for a job that’s nearly always invisible and where the work never really ends. Apparently appreciation for PRs among media rises when we’re working on their behalf. The next thing you know, they might even stop calling us “flacks.”

Public Relations And The Big Lie

 

As journalists grapple with “alternative facts” and the Trump administration’s war on the media, some professional public relations people are putting ourselves in the shoes of those who act as spokespersons for the new president. Those shoes are pretty uncomfortable.

As the Trump and the media squared off, I was struck by a provocative post exploring the president’s PR skills. Bob Pickard, CEO of Signal Leadership Communication, makes the case very well. In “A Publicist President” Bob warns:

Trump shows us the fearsome power of PR methods for mass persuasion just as surely as Edward Bernays did with the ‘Torches of Freedom’ campaign in the 1920s which helped convince millions of women to take up cigarette smoking under the guise of empowerment. Some might argue that Trump has not been doing PR so much as engaging in something much more sinister; namely, ‘propaganda’ (also the title of Bernays’ seminal book of 1928).

I’ve blogged about Trump’s PR and media skills myself, but it’s increasingly hard to accept his example as a model of effective public relations. For one, few PRs want to be associated with someone as controversial, mercurial, and downright unpopular. But even if you approve of Trump, in my view, he’s too impulsive a communicator to earn that label.

The comms guy as liar-in-chief

Trump’s true PR strategy – and his stunning success in dominating news coverage – is perhaps best seen in those operatives and others who have set the course, shaped his image, and occasionally helped save him from himself. But the transition to governing has been rough, and lately the team finds itself playing defense. This may be normal for a new White House, but for professional PR people, it’s also a warning. That’s because lately some of Trump’s staff have clearly experienced a PR person’s worst nightmare – being asked to lie for the boss.

The most damning stereotype for a PR person is probably the trope that we are nothing but spinmeisters or, worse, “professional liars.” Now, any PR or press rep will tell you that the fastest way to lose credibility is to be dishonest to the press. It’s just not true that PR is professional lying. But that’s the box Sean Spicer and Kellyanne Conway found themselves in over the weekend. The situation was all the more untenable by its relative pettiness; they were made to defend the new president’s claims not about national security or a major policy decision, but the size of the inauguration crowds in Washington, D.C.

For anyone watching Spicer’s first statement as White House Press Secretary last Friday, it was painfully clear that he was speaking not for himself, but for the boss. Spicer gamely railed against the press, angrily criticizing them for presumed distortions. He even built a detailed case for why the side-by-side photos of the Trump inauguration and President Obama’s 2008 ceremony were somehow inaccurate. In subsequent TV interviews, Conway tried to deflect to larger themes, but when cornered by NBC’s Chuck Todd, she reinforced the crowd size falsehood, eventually saying that the administration was offering “alternative facts.” From a communications point of view, it was a bad start for the new White House, to say the least.

For the public as well as the PR industry, the Trump-media brouhaha is a mixed bag. On the one hand, it’s encouraging that #alternativefacts was trending on Twitter within hours of Conway’s appearance in recognition of its utter speciousness. The #seanspicersays and #spicerfacts memes were even bigger. Jokes about Spicer’s credibility dominated social platforms and even made their way into weekend sports events.

But the falsehoods also evoke old stereotypes in our business. They made me remember a small but damaging survey of corporate communicators in which the majority admitted that they had lied to the media as part of their job. Ugh – and those are the liars who’re telling the truth! A broader survey conducted by DS Simon reveals that 90% of media, bloggers, and web producers feel they have at some point been “misled” by PR people or their outreach.

So, how can we rise above the deception? It’s easy to say that Spicer should have quit rather than risk his reputation, particularly about something so petty. It’s also popular to criticize Conway for her numerous deflections on-air interviews. Fortunately, most of us never face a choice like theirs.

But here’s the reality. There are times when a corporate spokesperson has to hide behind a technicality, or stonewall to prevent premature disclosure of material news. Outright fabrications, on the other hand, are very rare. And when they do happen, it’s often a symptom of an equally troubling issue –  that senior PR officers aren’t always in the loop when big changes are afoot. Or, worse, their view is discounted.

That’s symptomatic of the problem here also. Spicer undoubtedly knew that challenging the media over its reports of the inauguration crowd size was a bad move that would squander whatever honeymoon period Trump may have enjoyed with the White House press corps. But he wasn’t able to convince Trump of that. Conway, too, is famed as a Trump whisperer, but there she was, doubling down on TV and deepening the hole that the administration was digging.

Until the best in our profession are able to influence the powerful that lying is not only wrong, but counterproductive, we will be vulnerable to stereotypes of dishonesty and spin. That’s why every professional communicator of note has to refocus on the communication within our own organizations. We must recommit to transparency, to ethical relationships with media and partners, and to debunking the biggest lie of all — as when a high-profile example paints an entire administration – or profession – with one dishonest brush.

When Trump Attacks: Turn Mean Tweets Into Positive PR

Some PR pros consider Donald Trump a master of public relations. The $2 billion worth of media coverage his campaign earned helped him stand out in a crowded GOP field and win his party’s nomination. And one of Trump’s standout skills is his facility with Twitter insults.

No one is immune to the POTUS Twitter attack. He has gone after public companies, the occasional private citizen, and especially the press, both individually and en masse. In the most recent dustup,

Trump lashed out at @VanityFair, presumably for its very unflattering review of the Trump Grill.
But Vanity Fair publisher Graydon Carter is himself no PR slouch, and he’s a veteran of one of the most famous Trump feuds. Recognizing an opportunity, VF immediately threw up a subscription ad proclaiming it “the magazine Donald Trump doesn’t want you to read.”

It worked. Not only did the restaurant review attract over a million views, but VF subscriptions soared. Within 24 hours of Trump’s tweet, it added 13,000 subscribers, the highest number ever sold in a single day at Conde Nast.

Are Trump’s Tweets Good For Business?

So, are  Twitter attacks from Trump something brands should welcome? I laughed when I saw Katie Paine’s tweet, but in some cases, companies can benefit from his ire, especially if they’re media brands. Trump has repeatedly insulted the press, slamming the “failing New York Times,” “lying CNN,” and lambasting a group of media at his first off-the-record meeting after the election for what he deems dishonest coverage.

Yet the insults haven’t harmed the press, at least not yet. The New York Times reported that it  added 41,000 digital subscribers in the week following the election, the largest increase since it began offering digital subscriptions. Other major media and watchdog groups have said they’ve experienced strong surges in support, so it’s probably a general response by progressives to his election.

But what about other organizations? After Trump tweeted that Boeing’s new 747 Air Force One should be scrapped due to its $4 billion cost, Boeing’s stock price dropped, temporarily wiping out $550 million in shareholder value before rebounding somewhat the next day. A week later he hate-tweeted about the high cost of the F-35 fighter jet made by Lockheed Martin; it, too, was followed by a plunge in Lockheed’s stock price.

For a large public company, a nasty tweet from the President-Elect is like a lightning bolt – unwelcome, unexpected, and possibly dangerous. It can also work as a signal for supporters to pile on and will invariably attract unwanted media coverage.

So what’s a Boeing or a Lockheed to do? In some cases, nothing. If it’s a passing insult that’s more a matter of opinion or taste than fact, a nasty Trump tweet may be better left alone. Why risk picking a fight with someone who has a huge social bully pulpit unless unless the stakes are high?

In the case of incorrect information, however, a prompt response is warranted. That’s why Boeing’s statement detailing the facts of its Defense Department contracts was a smart move. Ditto for Lockheed Martin, which released details describing measures to limit costs for the F-35.

It seems that a nasty Trump tweetstorm can actually be good news for media, underdog brands, or any organization with a progressive customer base likely to rally in support of those values. But for a major public company, the challenge of a Trump attack is far trickier. Despite the unique nature of the POETUS Twitter, there are effective PR and media relations rules that apply here.

Respond quickly. Stories about Trump’s tweets (or seemingly off-the-cuff comments) will be picked up by news media instantly, so a delayed response won’t make it into the first news cycle. Given the blistering pace of news, a short, measured response beats a slower and more detailed one nearly every time.

But take follow-up offline. It isn’t always possible, but Lockheed’s offer to meet with Trump had the right tone. To litigate its case in the media, given the complexity of the fuller story, would have been a losing game. We saw this a year ago in the feud between Amazon and The New York Times through dueling Medium posts after Amazon’s Jay Carney objected to the paper’s feature on Amazon’s workplace culture. At some point, it devolved into a pissing match with no clear winners.

Be respectful. It goes without saying that a future president has the upper hand in a public conversation, no matter how aggressive his posts may be. Even Vanity Fair, which adopted a cheeky tone consistent with its brand, stopped short of being mean or vulgar.

Let advocates defend you if possible. Sometimes loyal customers, super-users, partners, and other advocates can do the “dirty work” of arguing with the president-elect, as in the case of Trump’s attack on Vanity Fair. Non-media companies, who are unlikely to have a natural constituency among members of the press, can still tap allies to speak up for what is factually correct.

Use humor. A genuinely witty response is a great leveler. “Modern Family” writer Danny Zuker, who famously feuded with Trump on Twitter way back in 2013, offers the ironic advice to choose your opponent wisely. Yet if Trump attacks them, brands don’t have a choice. But in his post, Zuker inadvertently offers the best advice of all about how to win a Twitter war. It’s simple: be funnier than your attacker. It usually helps.

Reporter Fahrenthold Crowdsources His Way To Glory

People who work in media and public relations like to say that click-bait headlines and hot takes have replaced traditional, “shoe-leather” reporting – the type that involves long hours of investigation, dogged pursuit of sources, and boring background interviews. Some even say the internet killed “real” journalism.

But one reporter has turned that trope on its head. Years from now David Fahrenthold of the Washington Post may be remembered as the one who broke the now-infamous Donald Trump “Access Hollywood” video, in which Trump is heard bragging about, er, grabbing women’s body parts. But long before the “groper” video, Fahrenthold had pursued several Trump stories in a very innovative way.

Earlier this year he set out to explore Trump’s record of charitable giving. Fahrenthold was struck by how often the GOP nominee had mentioned the “millions and millions” he donated to worthy causes, so he set out to document Trump’s philanthropy, combing through records from the late 1980s and calling hundreds of nonprofits.

But instead of documenting his findings (or mostly, the lack of them) in a spreadsheet, he scribbled down responses by hand on a lined notepad and regularly tweeted the list to track his progress. Even more unusual, Fahrenthold actively crowdsourced through his tweets, asking followers for help in tracking down any stray contributions from the Trump Foundation or Trump himself, and tweeting regularly about the progress of his calls and interviews. At one point, he put out an all-points-search for a six-foot-tall portrait of himself that Trump reportedly bought with Foundation funds.  The transaction not only violates a rule against “self-dealing” (spending nonprofit money on personal items) but it added a note of comic relief to the investigation.

The upshot was a series of excellent and deeply reported stories on Trump’s anemic charitable giving, as well as his use of the Trump Foundation to settle personal expenses, which is prohibited under legal rules.

Maybe more importantly, Fahrenthold has set a new standard for the work of reporting. First, he’s been utterly transparent, speaking directly to readers through social media and even soliciting their help in his investigations. This is unusual given the typical journalistic penchant for keeping leads and story progress close to the vest, for fear of being scooped or of having potential avenues of inquiry closed off by those who anticipate negative coverage.

He has also succeeded in digging out a fact-based narrative that would probably never have come to light amid the election year noise. In an interview with Nieman Lab, Fahrenthold noted that his approach stands out from conventional reporting about Trump as a candidate. “If you cover Trump’s words, you’re always just chasing your tail and letting him set the narrative. It’s hard to pin him down. With this, you’re judging him by his actions, not his words,” he explained.

Finally, Fahrenthold’s methods offer a window into the inglorious spadework, dull follow-up, and attention to detail that characterizes solid reporting.  And it proves that, far from supplanting traditional journalism, social media, with its vast reach and influence, can complement it.

Many think that Fahrenthold’s a good bet to win a Pulitzer Prize for journalism. Whatever the case, his unique approach has probably had a permanent impact on the way we look at journalism, and even on the way reporting works, and that’s a good thing.

How Not To Make A Public Apology

As any PR person will tell you, the public apology has become a ritual for personalities or politicians who’ve made a mistake and need to restore their reputation. But too often it falls short. Call it the fauxpology, the pseudo-apology or, as I prefer, the non-apology. Whatever you call it, it doesn’t work; anyone listening or watching realizes that the would-be apologizer isn’t truly remorseful and calls it for what it is — a sad example of the #sorrynotsorry trend.

This month we saw a stab at something resembling a general mea culpa from Donald Trump for comments causing “personal pain” and a more formal public apology from Olympic swimmer Ryan Lochte following his false story about being robbed in Rio. But who’s sorry now? In my view, Lochte’s expression of regret was far more successful, but each offers reminders for what not to say if you want to be taken seriously.

Here, then, are a few lessons from the non-apology rule book.

Don’t take responsibility

Best epitomized by the passive-voiced “mistakes were made” statement, this is the ultimate non-apology. It reeks of bureaucracy and has been used by government institutions, political operatives or mega-corporations who need to acknowledge error but who can’t or won’t assign responsibility. Today, it’s mostly the stuff of parody.

Better yet, shift responsibility to others

This is a time-honored fauxpology tactic best seen in the mealy-mouthed “I’m sorry if anyone was offended” line. It implies that those who are hurt or upset are simply overly sensitive. It’s also become so worn out that it’s not really worth doing. Lochte skirted this trap by making it clear in his interview with Matt Lauer that he was willing to “take ownership” of his “immature, intoxicated” behavior. He loses credibility, however, by minimizing the fact that he originally lied to investigators.

Talk a lot about how bad you feel

Or how misunderstood you were. Even in a personal situation, it’s tempting to wallow in regret, explain the bad behavior, or talk about what it cost you. Remember former BP CEO Tony Hayward’s “I’d like my life back,” after the Deepwater Horizon spill? Not a smart move. A sincere expression of regret is acceptable, but it shouldn’t be about you. And one of the worst ways to express contrition is to go on and on about why or how the misbehavior occurred. It quickly devolves into excuses, and excuses are the enemy of the true apology.

Have a lawyer write it

Ah, the crafted-by-a-committee-of-lawyers statement. This one’s particularly offensive. Legalistic words and hairsplitting terms, particularly those that seek to avoid liability, may be legally smart, but they are not sincere. There are times when a lawyer-vetted statement is unavoidable, but it will not usually promote redemption because the lack of personal responsibility or emotion is apparent. But then, for those accused of serious infractions, it’s sometimes a choice between restoring their reputation or avoiding jail. Avoiding jail usually wins.

Minimize the consequences

To his credit, Trump actually acknowledged that his ill-chosen words might have “caused personal pain,” which won him a couple of points on the apology scorecard. But his lack of specifics and self-justifying windup to the expression of regret were less impressive. It felt instead like a campaign trial balloon to test a kinder, gentler Trump. Acknowledging the consequences of bad behavior is part of taking responsibility.

Do it reluctantly

Some of the most badly received public apologies are those that seem to have been dragged out of someone after days of bad PR. Timing really matters here. Delays enable a drip-drip of negative coverage, while a prompt statement or interview will show sincerity and can help turn a negative news cycle.

Don’t focus on fixing or changing the situation

The most powerful thing you can say in a public apology is often about change. The company recalls its faulty product or fires the sexual harasser; the philandering politician recommits to his marriage; or the entertainer checks into rehab. Better yet is some kind of restitution for those who were harmed. Some fixes are more convincing than others, but even a worn out plan of action, like Anthony Weiner seeking therapy after his (first) Twitter scandal, is better than no commitment to change.

Focus on your fans, not the victim

If an apology is self-serving, it smacks of insincerity. Something that adds authenticity to a true mea culpa is when the offender apologizes privately to the people harmed, out of the spotlight. It was smart of Lochte’s PR counsel to have him give national media interviews in both the U.S. and Brazil to express remorse for his actions. Trump’s semi-apology would have been far stronger if he had already contacted those he insulted. It’s a long list, but had he started with the Khan family, whom he criticized after Khizr Khan’s remarks at the Democratic National Convention, his “regret” would have rung truer.

Be vague

A generalized apology is a non-apology. To have teeth, it should be specific. This is where Trump failed with his “regret” remarks, and where Lochte was more successful by describing what he should have done after the gas station incident. Lochte’s remark that he “should have been more careful and candid” was ultimately inadequate because he actually lied to investigators and the public, but at least he addressed the elephant in the room.

Hide behind a statement

Not every crisis situation warrants active media engagement. Where there’s legal liability or emerging information, a written statement may be adequate. But for purposes of personal redemption after a high-profile gaffe, a well planned sitdown with a carefully selected journalist is often the most compelling forum. It has risks, but I think the face-to-face method carries the most weight, simply because it involves a greater commitment and viewers or readers have more to guide their reaction.

What Master Interviewers Can Teach PR People

Because we spend time preparing clients for meetings with journalists, PR people tend to study media interviews from the view of the person getting the questions. During this crazy political primary season, interview-watching is a spectator sport, usually starring Donald Trump.

Yet something changed this week. Trump has had interviews with conservative Wisconsin radio personality Charlie Sykes, CNN’s Anderson Cooper, and MSNBC’s Chris Matthews. Though the journalists are very different, each interview was like a mini-master class in political interviewing style.

In every case, the reporter managed to break through the candidate’s bluster to reveal more than most previous interviews put together.

Trump’s struggles may stem from his attempt to broaden his appeal and therefore branch out in accepting interviews that he normally wouldn’t agree to. And most “normal” media interviews – like the ones public relations people set up every day – need not be adversarial. But analyzing each exchange got me thinking about first-rate interviewing skills that most PR people and their clients should cover in their own media prep sessions.

Create a relaxed environment. Every skilled interviewer starts with small talk, ideally flavored with a little common ground or flattery. They know that a relaxed and engaged subject will offer better responses, and that a friendly demeanor will play better with the audience if there is one. But those being interviewed should be aware of this, and of the fact that, unless an interviewer is rushed for time, he’s likely to start out easy and move to the tougher questions later. It’s not over ’til it’s over.

Match your style to the subject. Chris Matthews was particularly effective in questioning Trump because – like the candidate – he’s naturally bombastic. He badgers, meanders, and interrupts; in fact, he was so relentless that he was able to press Trump on his views about abortion, which resulted in a tangled response that had to be walked back by the campaign by the time the interview aired. Trump’s error here was being unprepared.

For other interview occasions, the challenge may be different. Badgering won’t work to draw out a reserved spokesperson or pull a colorful quote out of a canned speech. One reporter that I worked with confessed a trick for opening up reluctant subjects. She would pretend to end the interview, start to pack up, then act as if she’d remembered one last question, essentially starting fresh with a slightly less guarded interviewee.

Share your goals. Reporters don’t have to hide their motives; in fact, the journalist who explains what she’s going for in an interview will probably get a better and more authentic response from the subject. At the end of the day, you both want an interesting interview and an engaged audience.

Master the follow-up. Every good journalist knows that it’s crucial to follow-up, and follow-up again, but there’s an art to not appearing hectoring. Broadcast journalists sometimes temper their style when politicians segue into talking points without addressing the question because they don’t want to appear disrespectful on camera. Anderson Cooper did a good job with Trump in pinning him down even though he was challenged by Trump’s frequent interruptions and diversions into portions of his stump speeches.

Ask why. This is a useful and legitimate way to follow up, and it often elicits a better quote. It’s also an effective way to get at more personal motives or emotions, or to go deeper than a rehearsed sound bite that’s been used many times before. I don’t see it as dangerous for the interview subject, but it’s useful to practice an interview by going beyond a series of first-line questions.

Don’t fear the silence. In media prep sessions, I always tell clients not to feel compelled to fill a silent period during an interview. Staying quiet is a common technique used by journalists to encourage people to keep talking even when their answer has run its course. The impulse to keep talking to fill an awkward silence is a strong one, but the best response may be a smile.

Recap the story. We often prepare clients for interviews about technology issues where they may not realize they’re going into too much detail or using language not familiar to regular people. That’s why it’s helpful to recap the “story” to the person being interviewed to give them a sense of an average person’s takeaway and offer a chance to correct or simplify. With political candidates, it can also make them realize what’s inconsistent or disingenuous about a response.

Add a question as an afterthought. Nearly anyone being interviewed is on their guard, so good interviewers often save their toughest or best questions for the end. They may signal that the session is about to wrap up, wait for the person to relax, and fire away. But by the same token, an interview subject can volunteer to answer the question that wasn’t asked, and a good journalist will often welcome the opening. Many reporters we work with won’t conclude an interview without inquiring if there’s anything else that should have been asked.

For anyone who is the subject of a media interview, it bears repeating that the interview isn’t over until it’s over. And even then, there may be follow-up, fact-checking, editing, and adding, so don’t exhale until you see it printed, posted, or broadcast.

Donald Trump’s Not-So-Secret PR Weapon: Earned Media

Like most primary-watchers, I’m tired of reading –  even tired of blogging  – about Donald Trump. Yet you can’t deny that the candidate has a talent for public relations. There’s one thing that separates Trump from others in the dwindling Republican field – and I don’t mean his billions, his business background, or even his hair. The real secret of Trump’s rise is the earned media coverage he’s able to generate.

It’s absolutely staggering how little his campaign has had to spend in paid advertising, because he generates so much coverage in earned media through interviews and resulting social chatter.

The media, of course, have enabled him; they know that Trump is likely to say something entertaining or outrageous, and that he’s good for ratings. But even as other candidates have finally turned on Trump to try to cast him in a negative light, he keeps on owning the media. And his timing is pretty impeccable.

 

Consider the chart above, and bear in mind that this was back in August, long before the primary season, when most people are relatively tuned out of election politics coverage and media had many more candidates to cover.

Now fast-forward to 2016. During the last Republican debate, Marco Rubio dumped a binder’s worth of oppo research on Trump – from a lawsuit over illegal Polish workers on one of his projects, to the now-defunct Trump University. Showing some pretty sharp PR skills himself, Rubio kept the barbs coming, relentlessly urging viewers to “google it.” And one charge seemed to stick; searches for “Trump University” soared in the hours after the debate. But within 24 hours, Trump managed to grab control of the conversation by calling a press briefing in which he was endorsed by none other than New Jersey governor Chris Christie – a shocking turnabout that was good for at least three news cycles.

After Super Tuesday, Trump declined to give an official victory speech, opting instead for an oddly staged press conference at his Mar-A-Lago club in Palm Beach. The objective? Ostensibly it was to debut a slightly more gracious tone and move to the center in preparation for a general election. But I’ll bet a Trump t-shirt that the real reason was to keep Ted Cruz out of primetime.

Yes, it’s all about the media. Even after his failure to disavow white supremacist David Duke’s endorsement sparked outrage, Trump continued to dominate the news with his backpedaling on the issue. It’s enough to make you wonder if Trump is truly the person for whom any PR is good PR – no matter how bad.

What Donald Trump Knows About Public Relations

It may seem a stretch that PR people can learn from Donald Trump, whose announcement that he will run for president was lampooned by many in social and traditional media.
But maybe we can. Trump’s threats to enter the presidential race over the years have come across as tired and transparent bids for publicity. But, like it or not, the guy understands his own brand and he knows how to get media coverage. Despite some operations failures, he’s a genius at image-making and self-promotion.

So on the theory that you  never know where your next insight – or blog post idea – may come from, here are some, ahem, “PR lessons” from the Donald.

Control the story. I don’t know Trump, but I crossed paths with him several years ago when a client shared sponsorship credit for a major philanthropic event. He was surprisingly involved in the staging of the news conference and accompanying photo opportunities, down to the details. It was an almost Jobsian mastery of the optics, all for the greater glory of the Trump name. The same attention was paid to this week’s announcement – right down to the “extras” hired to cheer in all the right places (not recommended.)

Know your brand. The Trump brand character is synonymous not only with luxury and excess, but with American achievement, capitalism, and entrepreneurism.  In fact, this presidential bid might just be a way to burnish his brand persona for the next series of product tie-ins or business partnerships.

Timing is everything.  I doubt Trump would have run in the last election, in part because his fourth and final corporate bankruptcy was filed in 2009, and his holdings were likely hurt during the recent recession. By now, however, he’s flush again, even if the actual wealth doesn’t quite equal his claims. And he’s got pretty good media timing – just look at how he upstaged Jeb Bush in announcing his bid.

Define your enemy. Conflict drives narrative, after all. Trump has overdone this one, as he’s overdone most things. He’s picked fights or stoked feuds with dozens of personalities, from Rosie O’Donnell to Jerry Seinfeld (who called him “God’s gift to comedians.”) But when properly focused, telling your story within a competitive framework helps heighten the drama and engage the audience, just like the classic brand “marketing war” campaigns from Coke vs. Pepsi to Uber vs. Lyft.

Take a stand. Let’s face it, many corporate brands are cautious and even boring, particularly when it comes to the issues of the day, and understandably so. So when Trump lambasts public figures or opines about ISIS, it’s refreshing even when misguided. He’s not afraid to say what some others only think.

Own it. “I’m really rich,” is one of the reasons America should consider him, according to the Donald. He’s completely unapologetic about his wealth, his taste, even his hair. He may seem like a cartoon version of a wealthy mogul, but like the Kardashians, he’s living the dream. And he knows that his public currency is tied to a storybook style of affluence. Even as we dismiss the Trump campaign as a sideshow, we’re still talking about him.

Trump’s "Bombshell": A PR Hit Or Hoax?

It was a hairy week for both 2012 presidential candidates – if only because the poll-watching and punditry has reached a new level of frenzy as we enter the homestretch. Yet, Donald Trump, everyone’s favorite blowhard, managed to add one more stupid election trick to his bottomless bag of PR stunts.

Like most of us, I find it hard to take Trump seriously and want to slam his “October surprise.” For anyone who’s been unplugged for a few days, the Donald started the week with relentless hype for a “bombshell” he promised to announce Wednesday. The real estate baron-turned-reality-star tweeted to his 1.7 million followers that the announcement would be a “game-changer” that would give the election to Romney.

Naturally it turned out to be – gasp – a big nothing. Trump released a video offering a $5 million charity donation if the president would release his college transcript and passport application. (Not sure what the school transcript is supposed to show, unless it’s that Obama lied about his major or dropped his Semiotics course.)

Media mostly ridiculed the tired and, ahem, trumped-up birther accusations. My favorite response was Daily Show writer @LizzWinstead’s tweet about the $5 million offer, advising the president not to negotiate with a “hairorist.” That is, until I saw Stephen Colbert’s $1 million dollar offer of his own. It’s NSFW, but you can see it here.

Celebrities got into the act as well, many with offers of their own. Ricky Gervais pledged to give $500 to charity if Trump agreed to give up his own college records and “his hairdresser’s passport.”

So, despite all intentions to the contrary, we’re talking about Trump. Not in a flattering way, yet, in a sense, the stunt worked. The Trumpster earned another 15 minutes in the news and his name was a trending topic on Twitter. More insidiously, it gave rise to a day of speculation about what, exactly he would reveal, from secret Obama divorce papers to a hidden Iran war plan. And for the Romney camp, it was probably an unwelcome distraction from the candidate’s message.

So, the lesson for communicators is that media appetite for election-season sidebars is endless, and that Trump, as always, is shameless. He may be a head case, but in a twisted way, he’s his own best PR person.

Have Press Agents Become "Suppress" Agents?

Recently I attended an awards luncheon where a prominent PR woman was honored for her fierce protectiveness of her clients and her way of shutting out press who didn’t promise positive coverage. It made me wonder about the guard-dog publicist in the age of social media.

A few days later, I read the New York Times feature about entertainment publicists who struggle to rein in their clients on Twitter and other social platforms, often with limited success. (Are you listening, Gilbert Gottfried?)

Is the publicist as gatekeeper an anachronism? Maybe it should be.

Of course, we all want to do well by our clients, and that can mean blocking media access or counseling against certain actions. And I know it’s standard operating procedure in Hollywood, where celebrity representation has always meant painstaking image crafting and aggressive press management.

But, in becoming “suppress agents,” entertainment publicists (and some corporate communicators) may be going too far. First, they miss opportunities to convey the human dimension of their clients, and to actually build something like authentic engagement with fans.  And when access is too limited or the image too divorced from reality, they might just be setting them up for a fall.

Think back to Tiger Woods. His drive into the rough might have been smoother if it hadn’t contrasted so sharply with the carefully crafted image of Woods as a loyal family man and a paragon of self-restraint.
And one of the reasons Charlie Sheen’s outburst was so fascinating was that it felt so real. I, for one, am tired of the bland diet of banal profiles, puffy writearounds and praise for brilliant colleagues. Sheen’s unfiltered outbursts were like juicy red meat. As Entertainment Weekly‘s James Hibberd wrote, “Well, at least he’s not reciting the same carefully crafted humility that we hear from everybody else.” It’s true.

Where can we get a break from those overscripted moments? The answer seems to be Donald Trump and Snooki. I wish there were something in between.

Every publicist wants to help clients be the best possible versions of themselves. But there needs to be something genuine at the core. Sometimes  you can just feel the journalist struggling to eke out a spontaneous moment. It’s not to terrible to show your client’s humanity, and in the age of social media, it just may be inevitable.