Trump's Communication Strategy Takes a Wrong Turn

02/21/2017 10:47 pm ET | Updated Feb 22, 2017

In May of 2016, I provided reasons why Trump’s communications strategy was working. A lot of people did not agree, including some friends. Most predicted a Clinton victory, and some were so sure they did not vote. Others did not vote because they were diehard Bernie supporters. Even Clinton’s own campaign assumed Michigan and Wisconsin were “in the bag” that they did not campaign there and lost both states. After the election, we learned that better marketing trumps a better product (pun intended).

That was then… This is now

Now, after a month in office, it seems as if White House communications are in disaster mode. Here is a brief synopsis…

  • Trump’s national security advisor, Michael Flynn resigned and Labor secretary pick, Andrew Puzder, dropped out under fire. Others have passed on the opportunity to work with the Trump team.Concerns that the Trump administration has “too cozy” of a relationship with Putin and Russia are growing every time Trump defends Putin’s actions.
  • A number of news outlets have banned Kellyanne Conway for hawking Ivanka Trump’s products on TV.
  • Sean Spicer is being ridiculed in the media and most notably by Melissa McCarthy on Saturday Night Live.
  • Trump has tweeted that the media is “the enemy of the American People.”
  • Steve Bannon, Trump’s strategist has repeatedly attacked the media and told the media to “keep its mouth shut.”
  • Stephen Miller, policy advisor, declared on Sunday talk shows that Trump’s national security actions “will not be questioned.”

Many are saying that these comments sound more like statements from an authoritarian government than what they’d expect from the POTUS and his close advisors.

Negative impact

The bottom line is that the Trump brand is taking a serious hit because of the communications emanating from the White House since the inauguration. In political circles, respected Republicans and Democrats are criticizing Trump and defending a free and independent press. According to Gallup, Trump’s approval rating is the lowest of any President with 41% approving his performance and 53% disapproving since he took office.

What’s changed?

Trump, with the help of Mark Burnett, producer of the Apprentice, positioned himself as a successful businessman that takes charge and is always in charge. During the first several weeks in office, the American Public and intelligence agencies are witnessing the Trump team…

  • Violating longstanding American ethics rules, norms, and practices
  • Seeming to misrepresent relationships with the Russian Government.

In the Flynn case, Trump and his team have tried to distance themselves from Flynn. However, this does not square with Trump’s image of always being in charge.

Demonizing others to divert attention

Trump’s inner circle has a history of re-positioning opponents. First it was challengers for the Republican nomination. Then it was his Democratic opponent – Hilary Clinton. Now that he won the election, the focus has shifted to the judiciary, the media, intelligence services, and just about anybody whose job it is to serve as some form of “check and balance” on the Executive Branch. Trump brands any news report he doesn’t like as “fake news” – even when it captures what he actually said in video footage

He even disparaged Arnold Schwarzenegger, his successor on the Apprentice, at a prayer breakfast – blaming Arnold for ratings declines of the show Trump once hosted. Even more disturbing, he chose an appearance at the CIA in front a wall memorializing agents that lost their lives to say that “fake news” misrepresented the size of the crowd that came to his inauguration.

What those that fled totalitarian regimes are saying

Gary Kasparov, the famous chess player, is hardly a liberal. Similar to most Russians that left the Soviet Union and came to America, he is a big fan of conservative politicians, such as Ronald Regan. He wrote in the Washington Post, “Donald Trump reminds me of Vladimir Putin — and that is terrifying.” He says, “Instead of telling people what he will do if they elect him, he threatens them with what will happen if they don’t. The democratic leader needs the people. The tyrant, and the would-be tyrant, insists that the people need him.”

What makes America great?

Immigrants that came here from countries all over the world have helped to make America great. Unless you are American Indian, you are descended from ancestors that immigrated to America. These forebears came here because of what America represents – liberty and justice for all, the freedom to practice your religion, the ability to disagree with leaders without consequences, democratic ideals, and an infrastructure that enables people that work hard to achieve their own dreams. They are not flooding to get into countries run by dictators or controlled by one party. They know that not having choices is dangerous. In the United States, we have choices. If people want a leader that tells them what to do so they can blindly follow, there are so many places they can go. This is not one of them. The Founding Fathers designed the fabric of this country to distance America from an autocratic King of England.

Disparaging everyone is not helpful

During his speeches before and after elections, Trump disparaged just about everything and everybody. People were hoping this would change once the election was over. It hasn’t. Some believe it has gotten worse.

Communications and actions that hurt America’s brand

The worst part of the Trump team’s communications strategy is it hurts the American brand. As Kasparov and other immigrants have said, the American Dream is what brings people here. Statements that express admiration for dictators in other countries do not reinforce the American Dream. Instead, they represent nightmares that caused these immigrants to flee their home countries for the United States.

Trump has a real opportunity

With a Republican majority in Congress and an election win, Trump and his team have a real opportunity to fix what is broken. What is not broken is the basic fabric of this country – the Constitution, our system of laws, the American Dream, and the optimism of the American people. Communications out of the White House should be consistent with what Trump said on 60 minutes – to bring the country together after a very divisive election rather than remind immigrants, such as former chess champion Gary Kasparov, of the regimes they fled to come here. Let’s hope that the first month is an aberration and that the Trump White House will learn sooner rather than later that running a country successfully is vastly different than running a private company. Communications that attack the judiciary, intelligence community, past Presidents of both parties, and the media are not going to create jobs or rebuild a crumbling infrastructure. The President has the chance to do some good things. Since we are all in one “big boat” called the United States of America, attacking those that are helping to row the oars is not going to make the boat go faster. Developing a communications strategy that motivates all of us to work together will. To that end, let’s hope President Trump’s team improves its communications strategy soon.

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