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PR lessons from Donald Trump

Donald Trump has quite a way with attention.

After his controversial US presidential announcement speech, he dominated headlines and conversations that extended beyond the presidential race for months. Each time Trump spoke or did something, a flurry of articles would follow (how many times have you read the words “real estate mogul” since he started his campaign?).

Before the second Grand Old Party (GOP) debate took place on 16 September, Trump was the number 1 most Googled candidate nationwide –a reflection of the ongoing obsession with the businessman.

Trump also has an admirable penchant for basking in whatever attention comes his way – he used that to his advantage by turning the attention into conversations about him, his campaign and his business. His #AskTrump stunt on Twitter, where he hosted a spontaneous question-and-answer session, invited some less than favourable results.

Nevertheless, it caught the attention of influential media outlets like Quartz and Time, and was effective at drawing nationwide and international attention – exactly what Trump wanted. A high-profile individual such as Trump doesn’t just survive in spite of the negative publicity thrown his way, he actually thrives as a result of it.

In fact, looking past his pompousness, we can actually glean a handful of useful lessons applicable to the field of public relations (PR).

1. Frankness can effectively drive your messages home
When you think of Trump, ‘anti-immigration’ immediately comes to mind. After all, he kickstarted his presidential announcement by using aggressive labels such as rapists, drug dealers and criminals to describe Mexican immigrants.

But underneath his strongly-worded accusations, there is an underlying truth – there is, in fact, an illegal immigration issue in America that needs addressing. A large part of Trump’s popularity is owed to his mantra that political correctness is damaging America’s politics, and he employs this tactic to the fullest when addressing his supporters.

While it doesn’t mean PR consultants should start advising their clients to dish out tactless statements, using a certain amount of strategic controversy can set your message apart and add colour to your campaign, thereby capturing attention and driving the message home better.

Independent human rights research group Amnesty International uses contentious imagery in their social advertisements with the intention of directing viewers straight to the heart of the issues at hand, which have been effective in bringing their messages across, as well as encouraging engagement in the form of online sharing and discussions.

A company that is able to inject life into its PR efforts creates and reinforces a unique identity. The danger with always using politically correct, carefully crafted statements is that in the long run, companies may come off as boring, pretentious,insincere and trying to skirt around the truth.

2. Be reachable and accessible
In spite of Trump’s controversial statements, he appears to do the complete opposite of shying away from the media. Trump’s candidness during his interviews is a stark contrast from his Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton, commonly cited as ‘inaccessible’ and cut-off from the media and the public in how she limited access and coverage to reporters, and provided less than satisfactory answers during her first nationally televised interview with CNN.

Corporations that go the extra mile to engage their stakeholders and appear more human are more likely to be appreciated and supported, especially since large firms tend to seem unapproachable. Air Asia CEO, Tony Fernandes, exemplified this well through his response to the flight QZ8501 crash. His candid tweets and meetings with the families affected not only added a personal touch, they connected with stakeholders in a way that no formal statement or press conference ever could.

In contrast, a lack of effort to be transparent and connect with stakeholders will only make companies less relatable, which could ultimately lead to their demise. A key example would be that of Malaysia Airlines’ PR fiasco in the aftermath of flight MH370 crisis.

3. Never use negative emotions or statements as a response
Trump’s Twitter account and statements are filled with numerous displays of emotional outbursts which are completely at odds with the professional and composed demeanor deemed fit of a public figure.

From insulting various Republicans to sexist remarks directed at Fox News journalist Megyn Kelly, these emphasize that displays of immaturity do nothing but inflict damage on a reputation. In this case, it cost him an invite at the 2015 Redstate Gathering, an influential and prominent gathering of conservatives.

Joanna Kot, deputy head of PR and media at the world’s largest jewellery chain, Chow Tai Fook, learnt this the hard way after her Facebook post mocking sexual assault victims of the Occupy Hong Kong protests went viral. Negativity feeds itself, and a slip of the tongue (or the fingers) can only cause things to go downhill. In this case, the company faced the threat of boycott and brand damage which negatively affected their business.

At a glance, negative campaigns of any sort tend to be brushed off as thoughtless, tactless or carried out in poor taste. But using some measure of negative attention strategically is a move that has gained traction in recent years – and for good reason, since it effectively catches the audience’s attention and directs them to look beyond the surface to identify and analyze the issues within.

This being said, in spite of Trump’s brashness and know-it-all persona, we shouldn’t be so quick to scoff and see his antics simply as entertainment. Given the vast intersecting fields of politics and communication, to do so would be discounting all the possible lessons you and your clients could benefit from.

Currently pursuing dual majors in Corporate Communication and Political Science at Singapore Management University, The Hoffman Agency Singapore’s Sherlyn Cheng takes a strong interest in churning out observations and literature on current events, social behaviour and communication trends into intelligible opinion pieces.