Has Trump changed the PR game for business leaders?

01/25/2017 01:35 pm ET Updated Jan 27, 2017

What public relations lessons can corporate leaders take from Donald Trump’s successful but seemingly unorthodox campaign for President? Has he changed the PR game?

It’s tempting, because of the controversial content and tone of his campaign, to say that he did. But the truth is that Trump actually reinforced many established public relations principles. Here are some PR lessons that can be learned from Trump (and some that can’t be):

  • Stay on message and communicate in sound bites. Much has been made of – and criticized about – Trump’s word selection. But whether you agree with him or not, you understand what he is saying. Sound bites are looked upon by many with disdain -- as the product of slick political consultants and corporate marketers. But sound bites are just ideas distilled down into simple sentences that are easily understood. As Trump showed, plain language will always beat jargon.
  • Twitter is a powerful took to communicate directly with an audience. Not only does it bypass the filter of the news media, but it forces you to communicate clearly and simply.
  • Don’t write off established media brands. It’s true that Trump avoided direct contact with the mainstream media for months, communicating with voters through social media and alternative news outlets, but it was the media’s amplification of his tweets, as much as the tweets themselves, that drove public opinion. According to the Pew Research Center, 24 percent of Americans got news about the campaign from cable and television news alone, compared to 14 percent who got it from social media. Don’t confuse the media’s problematic business model with a lack of reach. You may not get a newspaper delivered to your door every morning or watch the network news after dinner, but chances are that whatever online content you are looking at originated from – or is a reaction to – an established media brand.
  • Don’t over-learn the Twitter lesson. The news media (and everyone else) hang on your every tweet when you’re a celebrity or the next potential leader of the free world, but if you’re not a household name – not so much. For the most part, the media use social media as a publishing platform, not a two-way form of communication. Research shows that while reporters are increasingly using social media to mine stories, the vast majority of journalists prefer to be contacted the old-fashioned way – by email.
  • Conflict and controversy drive media coverage. A common criticism of the media’s handling of Trump is that they covered him as a circus act – a series of spectacularly freakish occurrences – and failed to scrutinize his policy positions. But the news media have always focused on the fight because fundamentally they are a consumer industry that must sell a product to as many people as possible – and fights sell. It’s just that Trump understood and capitalized on that dynamic better than any of his competitors. Most corporations aren’t eager to court conflict and controversy, but what they can learn from Trump (and other politicians) is that picking an enemy or a fight is a powerful way to define yourself.

It’s hard to argue, with a cold-eyed analysis, with Trump’s formula. He generated more than $5.2 billion in earned media coverage, compared to $3.2 billion for Hillary Clinton, according to mediaQuant. The question is whether he can sustain it. The early days of his administration suggest that war with the news media will be a long-term strategy. Notwithstanding Trump’s success so far, it’s a war that politicians, even Presidents, have traditionally lost – and one that corporations, lacking the megaphone of the Presidency, should avoid.

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