I have spent a lifetime in the field of public communications – with emphasis on politics and public policy. I have advised innumerable candidates, causes and companies on imaging and messaging. I have lectured and taught courses on the subject at leading institutions of (allegedly) higher learning. I even developed a technical credibility analysis to enhance the effectiveness of communications. I will now reject my own advice and break my own cardinal rule against self-praise by saying that I am pretty damn good at it.
When advising clients, I remind them that the single objective of public communications is to convince people of something – to buy a product, to vote for a candidate, to donate to a charity, to show up at an event, to … well you get the idea.
The second thing to understand is that one’s public image is NOT the real person – and the more prominent the person, the less they are actually like their public image. A public image is something that must be managed. However, I do advise clients that it is not wise to try to create a public image too far removed from the real person. It tends to fail over time. Remember how beloved was Bill Cosby before the real him broke through the public perception?
I created my credibility analysis because I came to realize that to be an effective communicator you had to be believable. Now that may sound obvious, but, believe me, it is not. Many – especially politicians – assume that they are to be believed because their mouth is moving.
The concept that a person is to be believed automatically is an underlying characteristic of the news media. How many times do you hear them try to convince us that they speak the “truth” based on “facts,” when they almost always offer their preconceived and often biased opinions.
If I were ever again invited to teach a class in public communication, I would use President Trump as a prime example – of what NOT to say and do. This is not a recently formed opinion. From the onset of his presidency, I have rated him as a terrible communicator.
It is the reason he has been arguably the most maligned President in American history – and that has hurt him and the Republican Party. Without a single change in policy, I believe that if Trump had known how to effectively communicate, he could have blunted much of the criticism and been a relatively popular president on his way to certain re-election. The fact that he is not – and that the Republican Party took a drubbing in 2018 – may have more to do with Trump’s communication skills – or lack thereof – than his appointments and policies.
I understand that a lot of people in his base seem to believe that he is an incredibly good communicator. After all, he got elected President of the United States – although he did not win the popular vote (despite what some of his supporters like to claim). One of my other rules of credibility is to not argue against prevailing fact – especially when there is no benefit to be gained from the argument.
Central to effective communications is CREDIBILITY. A public figure needs to analyze and understand their own credibility strengths and weaknesses to develop an effective communications strategy. Trump seems to see his own credibility as an enemy – to be destroyed at every opportunity.
The Washington Post computes that Trump has lied 18,000 times – and if such a standard was used on others, that number may not be a record. Of course, the Post is lying. A LOT of their alleged lies are misstatements – later corrected – or interpretations, or just not consistent with the Post’s preconceived opinions. It is a very subjective analysis. BUT they can get away with that because Trump has provided enough grist for the media mill to make all their claims seem more broadly legitimate.
Truth and credibility are in constant conflict – and credibility trumps truth because credible statements – even when untrue — are what people base their beliefs upon. As President Lincoln noted, whether beliefs are well- or ill-founded, they all have the impact of fact. We have a euphemism for credible lies. We call them narratives.
Trump often has a propensity to say or mean the right thing but to express it in the wrong way – subject to the negative spin of his enemies in the press. Trump is constantly accused of supporting the bad guys by what he said regarding the events in Charlottesville in 2017. He said that there were good people on both sides. Insofar as he was talking about those who wanted to remove Confederate statues and those who wanted to retain them.
Trump was right. Good people had different perspectives and different opinions on the question of the statues – and that is what Trump was addressing. But it got spun that he was defending the actions of white supremacists– who came to provoke violence — and the murder of the young lady demonstrator who was intentionally run down by a car. Trump has spoken out against violence and white supremacy, but those statements get ignored and his credibility further suffers.
Over the course of the past four years, I have often winced over what Trump says and how he says it. I think it would be fair to say that he often seems tone deaf. I was dismayed in real time as I watched the President walk to St. John’s Church for that photo op. To say it was ill-advised and ill-executed is an understatement. That was not a backfire, however. Trump had the proverbial communications gun pointed at his own face. This was ineptitude.
The questions are: Did the plan arrive out of a consensus of a group of advisors? Or did Trump reject better advice to do it his way by gut feeling – which is one of the sources of his credibility problems.
I have been in the midst of several major protests and riots going back to Chicago and Washington in the 1960s. I remember how President Nixon left the White House in the dark of night to meet with protestors camped around the Lincoln Memorial. At the time it was a communications coup. The optics were very positive for the President.
In my lifetime, I have been up close to men with opposing communications skills. President Reagan was the best communicator since our Founders – and perhaps Lincoln. Conversely, Trump is, in my estimation, the worst presidential communicator– in American history. Like reports of his golf game, Trump misses the short putts.
He could have had a positive event at St. John’s. He should not have had the entire area cleared, but just a path – and he should have stopped to talk at some length to demonstrators along the sideline.
(I must pause here because I can presage the reaction. WHAT!!! Have Trump mingle with those protestors – exposing himself to the hackles of the crowd? Maybe hit by a rock or worse? Based on my experience in such situations, I am quite confident that the expressions of hostility would have been surprising minimal, and the conversations would have been surprisingly polite. I saw that with Nixon and with governors, mayors and police chiefs who came into the crowds. The risk of death or even critical injury is nominal. The police and Secret Service can handle it. And demonstrators know that hitting the President with a rock would have garnered Trump ENORMOUS favorable publicity and the perpetrators significant time in jail.)
The visit to the Church should have been cleared with the pastor. Trump should have requested a visit to the burned-out room. Like it or not – like him or not – the clergy would have had to allow the visit. I would have even invited the participation of the Anglican Bishop of Washington – who later piled on with her own criticism.
He should have gone to the sanctuary to kneel and pray with his entourage and the clergy. The entourage, however, should not have included his Attorney General and Secretary of Defense. He might have brought a few black ministers with him.
Trump could then have gone outside to make a short speech to the nation, in which he could again express his understanding of the motivations of the peaceful protestors and his revulsion of those who use peaceful protest as cover for unspeakable violence.
My vision is not the product of hindsight – but the result of 50 years in the public communication business. Sad to say, Trump is just not a good public communicator.
Do not misjudge my constructive criticism. I like the Trump administration policies. I will vote for him again in November because I think the left-wing Democrats are an existential threat to the Republic. We will be debating that over the next five months. But I wish – oh, how I wish – that that man could develop some level of EFFECTIVE communications skills.
I have often wished that I had him as a client and could give him much needed advice. But maybe HE is the problem. Maybe he has gotten good advice but ignored it. I do not know. But I would love to try.
So, there ‘tis.