March 21, 2017
The communications policy of the Trump administration is hard to parse. It’s either sublime genius or haphazard guesswork. In either case, there is no disputing that Trump has found the master controls to the media machine. Put simply, he is everywhere – even by the high standards of the office he holds.
There are multiple strands to this success. For example, the President’s social media presence has been one of the most distinctive and disruptive acts in a multi-coloured circus, demonstrating the power of digital to boost impact. However, the true wonder at the heart of the Trump team’s PR strategy is the way it exploits the holistic nature of modern comms.
Trump knows that a single incendiary tweet will now ripple at the speed of light across thousands of other platforms and publications, becoming a micro phenomenon in a matter of minutes. That is the key to the current administration’s outreach strategy. Trump and his team generate a hundred news moments a month, all at a total cost of $0. By inserting a message into the social media mincer, a million mini messages trickle down below.
The other defining element of the Trump administration’s communication strategy is, of course, Trump’s explosive willingness to push boundaries with the content and statements he makes via social as well as traditional platforms. That openness to risk acts as the fuel that feeds the media machine.
The reason why is simple and much-rehearsed – we all enjoy a good dose of outrage (whether we’re feeling it ourselves or enjoying the schadenfreude of seeing it in others). As a result, outrageous comments generate clicks, which in turn prompt editors to publish outrageous comments, ad nauseam. There was a period of a few weeks in February, for example, during which it felt as though the BBC was featuring Trump’s apparently offhand words on the front page in almost constant circulation.
“Outrageous comments generate clicks, which in turn prompt editors to publish outrageous comments”
The Donald’s statements are quotable, THEY SHOUT and they’re usually just the right side of the libel line. They’re a tabloid headliner’s dream. Also, because he’s the President, the broadsheets can get on board as well, huffing indignantly. Lament him though they might, however, coverage is coverage, and so this White House (metaphorically) owns the media. Silence would be the only form of retaliation available to a morally dissatisfied press (should such a thing exist), but silence comes at the price of diminished readership. That being the case, there are two choices available to paid media outlets: publish or die.
As a result of this unique approach to political comms, we’re witnessing a new high on the media seismograph. We’ve seen this level of cross-platform coverage generated before by individual catastrophic events, but never by an individual, at will and with such longevity. Trump tweets, and then web sites, social media feeds, blogs, newspapers, magazines, the commentariat, TV programmes, satirists, talk shows, protesters and newsreaders all willingly republish and amplify his message. He’s like a man with a ten-gigawatt echo chamber.
What can we learn from all of this? Ultimately, we should remember that the Trump administration is just another organisation looking for coverage, albeit with a bigger megaphone than most. What it does so well, however, is to treat the media – from print to digital to social – as one single organism, and then to control it as such.
It seeks to provide the right message – relevant to its target audience, but also sufficiently bold to draw comment from those who disagree. This approach has quickly turned half of its readership into a loyal tribe willing to promote its message loudly to the other half. Next, it crafts that message into a widely shareable format – the telegraph-bulletin brevity of Twitter. Finally, it sends it out of the door and onto a billion screens, there to build the brand of the President, reaffirm support and coax newcomers into the fold.
In a way, this is the fundamental basics of brand-building. What we must learn from this is the willingness to take hold of the media as one, to look for an integrated strategy rather than tunnel vision, and the need to be bold with our messaging. Of course, we shouldn’t have company X declare war on competitor Y just to boost engagement numbers. However, we should recognise that Trump is the product, not the cause, of this sensationalist media landscape. His media strategy keeps winning for the administration because he gives the people exactly what they want. He perfectly matches his aims with his audience’s desires and concerns. This alignment is exactly what other organisations should be doing.
Let’s just try and avoid any Twitter brawls with Snoop Dogg…