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

cnn-anchor-jake-tapper-asks-donald-trump-3-times-if-he-would-condemn-david-duke-and-the-kkkLike 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 below right, 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.

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