Tag Archives: Political Communication

Bad Publicity vs. NO Publicity: Presidential Campaign Lessons

We’re finally down to two. The last ones standing. Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. And one will become President of the United States.  

After all the primary debates and most recently, the conventions, the campaigns have begun the slog toward Election Day. On the one hand, you have Clinton, who cannot seem to get out of her own way when it comes to dealing with the screw-ups of the past and Trump, who has not encountered a criticism he should not respond to. It’s reported they are the most disliked candidates in history.

And there are still 3 months to go!

So, is it really true that the only bad publicity is no publicity? Is it better to be talked about than ignored, regardless of what’s being said?

It’s complicated.

Let’s start with Hillary Clinton. In her case, bad publicity has a decidedly negative impact. The reason why goes something like this: Bad news sticks when it 1) undermines the core argument you make about yourself or 2) supports the core argument the opposition would have people believe about you.

Clinton promotes herself as experienced, knowledgeable, a steady hand, a hard worker. Therefore, it’s logical to assume a knowledgeable, experienced person would know that using a personal email server for state and often highly confidential business could create significant problems. So the actions contradict her message. (NOTE: I am not judging, only observing.) They undermine what she’d like us to believe about her and give ammunition to the opposition in their efforts to derail her candidacy by sticking her with the “poor judgment” label.

But what about Donald Trump? Have his choices undermined his candidacy? Not yet. Trump promotes himself as a business expert, strong, and not politically correct. Furthermore, he has trained the public over many years to expect little from him in terms of behaving within the usual boundaries of polite discourse. One powerful result is he is not held to that standard. He is vulnerable, of course, but he’s been very successful so far at protecting himself from news that could undermine his claims of business prowess, such as his tax returns. This also cleverly plays right into the political incorrectness theme and keeps him in the news because although it isn’t required, it’s traditional for candidates to release their returns for public evaluation, so pushing back against tradition fits.

There is one advantage for Hillary Clinton: Bad news that has come her way in recent days has not stuck because Trump is sucking up all the media space.  

So what’s the answer? Is it true that the only thing worse than bad publicity is NO publicity? Right now, if you’re Hillary Clinton, the answer is no and if you’re Donald Trump, the answer is yes.

Like I said, it’s complicated.

Words Matter. How Evil Is Communicated

“Sticks and stones will break my bones but names will never hurt me.”

This is the old schoolyard response to name-calling and other taunts. Today, we’d call it bullying. I don’t believe it’s an accurate or appropriate response any longer.

What I want to do today is to explain how words, skillfully used, change how we think and ultimately, how we behave. We must be aware so we can remain in charge of our thoughts and actions vs. allowing others to take charge.

I last wrote about this in 2011, when Gabrielle Giffords, the former Arizona congresswoman, was one of several who were shot by a gunman at a political event. At the time, my critique was that words and language we’d been using in our political and public discourse had impacted, even encouraged the perpetrator.

Language is tricky. Its meaning can hide, and, in the wrong hands, cause someone to commit murder. There is an example of this happening right now and we must know about so we can stop it before it’s too late.

Yes, I’m referring to the language being used (or not used) by Trump. Not only is there a tremendous amplification due to the growth of social media and his use of it, but his language is even more explicit and poisonous than what has been used to date by other politicians. It is a cynical effort to co-opt a group of fellow citizens, the vast majority of whom should be respected, but not encouraged.

Words are the vehicles of persuasion and they have great power. If you have any doubt about this, see the big advertisers, who all spend billions to find just the right words and phrases to pitch their products and services. The result of repeatedly hearing these billion-dollar messages over months or years is that even skeptics eventually find themselves slipping into buying mode.

There is a big difference however, between an advertiser who sells soap that contains “1/4 moisturizing cream” or promises a car characterized as “the ultimate driving machine,” and a political candidate, like Trump, who says things like,

“I’ll beat the crap out of you.”
“I’d like to punch him in the face.”
“Maybe he should have been roughed up.”

With the former, lives aren’t in danger. No one’s going to go into that supermarket or car dealership and start shooting because he disagrees with that message. But it is a fact that some individuals listening to certain political messages delivered by a man they see as their leader and even hero, will act on them.

(Something to notice and be hyper-aware of: Trump himself never gets dirty. He prefers others do his dirty work for him. This is cowardice personified.)

I said earlier that Trump voters and supporters must be respected and I mean that. Regardless of what I think of Trump and his hateful and inflammatory language, he has spoken some important truths. Among them are that too many people in our country have been shafted and have lost any hope of bettering their lives and the lives of their families. Politicians and government have largely been at fault. Our immigration system is broken and must be fixed soon. I can understand how promises to deport people who’ve overstayed their visas resonate; it is unfair. Last, but not least, terrorism feels like the new normal as evidenced by the horrific attacks in Europe and the one in San Bernardino. It is so very frightening and must be attended to.

Another observation: Trump’s language and presentation fall against the backdrop of the last 7 years of President Obama’s style. With respect to the president, he has always been of the mind that he shouldn’t have to sell his point of view, that it is somehow beneath him. He refuses to be the “daddy-in-chief” even when we need him to be. It is one of his great failings as a communicator and leader and the rise of a Trump is a stark reminder and rejoinder.

The Trump voters are multi-faceted, of course, but many of them seem to share the following:


These form the perfect recipe for his incendiary rhetoric. If I put myself in the shoes of someone feeling these emotions, I might want to “beat the crap” out of someone. And if I were inclined to become physical, I might act on it. Here is what I know for sure: The vast majority of people will not act. But it only takes a few in a crowded arena, egged on by their so-called “leader,” and overtaken by group dynamics (mob mentality), to inflict a lot of damage and maybe even death.

Of course, demonizing the “other” and threatening, coded language didn’t start with Trump. It has long been used by those who are most evil to foment violence. Trump might not quite reach the level of evil (not yet), but I would characterize him as wicked. Trump knows better, as one must to be as successful as he has been, which is what makes him all the more odious.

That he makes such vicious and provocative statements, then denies them while softening his tone, or pivots to a subject of his choice so masterfully that even seasoned reporters don’t know what hit them takes planning, aforethought, and lots and lots of practice. Something else I am certain of.

There is nothing that can be done about him. He is lost.

But we are not lost. We can all do something. We can identify and understand his techniques, apply this understanding and recognize that only the cowardly and insecure lead the way he does. We can be more self-aware. We can temper our feelings and behaviors. We can ask ourselves soul-searching questions: Is this how I treat my neighbor? Is this how I would want my neighbor to treat me?

All of us. All of us.

Truth: Our country does need some revolutionary thinking and courageous leadership. The people who have been in power for decades have failed us miserably. The current crop of candidates are, as usual, uniformly weak and co-opted by interests of one type or another, yet, one of them will be the next president. This is sad, but not wicked.

Our only choice is to demand change, to use some of the best communication techniques to beat the Trumps of the world at their own game:

1. Carefully select a leader to give us voice lest we destroy what  our
forefathers created.
2. Create a strong message that resonates.
3. Hound them until they get it done.

God help us if it’s a demagogue like Donald J. Trump.

While Everyone Zigs, Donald Trump Zags and Why You Should, Too

It’s an old advertising/marketing adage: If everyone zigs, you zag.

What this means is you have to stand out, do the unexpected, un-follow the herd. We have a prime illustration of how successful this strategy can be in Donald Trump. He has been so successful, in fact, he could become the next POTUS, a terrifying thought.

Like a lot of media commentators, I stated early on Trump was a passing fancy, a man of the moment. I thought he would fade and soon. After all, how could someone who says and does such absurd things be taken seriously by voters?

I was so wrong and as a communication expert, I should’ve known better.

First, I always thought his slogan was perfect and the best of the lot, by far. I still do. “Make America Great Again” hits so many marks in message creation and framing, it’s hard to know where to start.

Second, since he announced over 8 months ago, he has been a daily fixture in the media. No other candidate has come close, not even Hillary Clinton. Trump knows it’s a bad day when he’s not being covered. He takes the cliché, “the only thing worse than bad publicity is no publicity,” to new heights.

Third, he has a strong POV and no filters.

Fourth, he knows what the media wants. More important, he knows what many people want and has tapped into how they are feeling. He says and does things that we have never seen publicly in a presidential candidate before. We’re shocked, but titillated. We shield our eyes, but we cannot turn away. We all say, “Oh, how awful,” but we secretly admire his chutzpah and skill (at least I do). We even agree with him on some things.  We cannot stop reading and watching. As a result, the long-suffering press industry has been presented with a financial windfall and, thus, has a stake in keeping him front and center.

It’s a very hungry beast and Trump knows how to feed it.

Trump knows the more outrageous his statements or behaviors, the more likely it is he’ll be covered. So he makes a habit of it and the media jumps. The outcome is all Trump all the time, a level of saturation that big advertisers can only dream of and Trump is getting for free! If you’re inclined to believe “A Diamond is Forever” or “You’re in Good Hands With All State,” then it stands to reason that “Make America Great Again” and its author have made a little home in that place in your brain that wants desperately to believe someone is out there who can make it all better.

Donald Trump may be the greatest “zagger” in modern times and though I personally think a President Trump would be a disaster (to use one of Donald’s favorite words), there are several things we can learn by watching him:

    • Identify what makes you different. Trump thinks of himself as the “strong man” among “weaklings.” He demonstrates it through his words and behavior. Your differentiator could be the way you serve clients or do your work. It can be your online branding or even your personal attire. Figure out how to “show, not tell.”
    • Follow your instincts. Unlike Donald Trump, most of us have filters. That is a double edged sword. It’s good if it enables you to entertain opposing viewpoints. It’s bad if it keeps you from saying something that needs to be said. If you feel something or hear that little voice, or if something doesn’t quite fit, acknowledge it, make sure stakeholders know your thinking and why, quickly course-correct, and move on.
    •  Know what you know. Certitude has always been a great sales technique and Trump has an excess of it. There are things we all know to be true others may find controversial. Don’t be afraid to state them unequivocally and remain steadfast in the face of criticism and pushback. It may mean some clients fall away or you push them away or find  employment that’s a better fit. This can be so difficult and painful, but it’s also freeing and  will create space for better things ahead.
    • Stick with it. Discipline is key. Trump has been doing his zagging consistently since he announced last June. Consistency works… even if what someone is saying is ridiculous. Why is this? Because repetition has a way of inspiring belief. (Again, I refer you to the major advertisers.) Don’t give up. If you become dislodged, get back in there.

Learn from Donald Trump, but don’t be like Donald Trump. He may be a role model as a marketer, but not as a human being and certainly not as a leader for this country. In his case, they are separate. In yours, they shouldn’t be.