Like many PR pros, I’ve been watching the Trump presidential campaign with utter fascination. Politics aside, this is a study in media relations that leaves many people scratching their heads as statements that would be tantamount to political suicide for any other candidate, seem to elevate The Donald to new heights.
And, in some cases, I find myself amazed by the brilliance behind the bluster.
Yes, you read that right.
Take, for example what happened yesterday. It seems Trump made a speech to the African American Chamber of Commerce in South Carolina. According to the Tweets and Instagrams from people in attendance, as well as reports from the AP, ABC and CNN, the room was half-empty.
Now, when asked about it, most politicians would address this with a standard “The crowd was very enthusiastic and what’s really important is… insert key talking point here.”
That’s they way any PR pro worth their salt would have advised Trump to handle the story: address the issue, divert to the talking points. End of story. It’s a wrap.
Trump, however lashed out at CNN’s Randi Kaye for mentioning the smaller crowd in her report:
“I made a speech to the African American Chamber of Commerce in South Carolina. Wonderful people. And the room was full, every seat was full. When I went to the stage, everybody forward. They all rushed to the front of the room. It was a ballroom. They all rushed to the front of the room. And when they did that, you had half of the seats in the back were empty, because everyone was standing in the front.”
Now, when I first tuned in to AC360 last night, I was stunned to hear Trump’s comment. To me, he sounded childish and I commented to my husband that he was making it a bigger story now. After all, a lot of people may have missed the news that the crowd was smaller, or just not cared.
But, here he was calling reporters liars and making claims that video and photo evidence clearly dispute. (Every photo and video of the event clearly shows the room is more than half-empty and the number of people standing in the front don’t equal the number of empty seats in the back).
But, as I was tsking him for a bad PR move and for making a non-story a huge one, something happened in AC360’s coverage.
Initially, the four pundits were having the same reaction that I did. They criticized him for insulting the media, for lying, for acting like a bully and for behaving in an unPresidential way.
Then, CNN’s AC360 started running photos of Trump while the talking heads were talking.
They weren’t showing photos of the smaller crowd in South Carolina – the story they were actually covering.
Instead, they split the screen to show photo after photo after photo of Trump looking successful.
Photo after photo of Trump talking to large crowds.
Photo after photo of Trump looking Presidential.
For thirty full minutes, Donald Trump received free airtime on one of the most sought-after shows on a sought-after network and every single image told a story of a successful candidate who is presidential and beloved by the people.
Consider, if you will, all the many places where CNN runs on TVs without sound:
- office lobbies
- doctor’s waiting rooms
- dentist’s waiting rooms
- auto mechanic waiting rooms
- people’s homes
We see CNN running everywhere without the volume.
And, without the volume – without hearing the pundits criticizing Trump – the average viewer would see him in a positive light. After all, a picture really is worth a thousand words.
Even the chyron doesn’t really tell the story.
“Trump lashes out at CNN’s Randi Kaye”
Without context, one could easily assume Randi had done something wrong. When, in truth, she simply reported a fact that was supported by visual evidence.
I’ve worked in public relations for nearly twenty years now, I have never seen anything like Trump’s campaign. Now, I know the media will always run with whatever delivers viewers/readers/clicks. They are a business – now, more than ever.
But, giving a full thirty minutes of free publicity – night after night after night – to a single candidate while skewing the news with imagery that tells a very different story than what they are covering? This is a new kind of “journalism” for me. And, it seems to be the only kind of environment where a candidate who has brazenly insulted entire swaths of Americans and who hasn’t – to my knowledge – presented any real specifics about any issues, can soar in the polls.
Trump is changing the rules of campaigning by funding his run himself and by transforming the media into his personal publicists simply on the fact that no one knows what he will say or do next.
And, I have to admit, I am waiting with baited breath to see the long-term impact this has on media relations and future campaigns.
Let me know what you think. Would these images make a difference in how you viewed the story CNN was telling?
Here is the full version of Trump’s response to CNN’s reporting: