Public Relations, Public Speaking and Trump

With his unconventional campaign for president, Donald Trump offers lessons in two subjects I teach: public relations and public speaking.

Public Relations: The New York Times reports that Trump is willing to spend $100 million of his own money on his campaign. This figure is less than the $1 billion he had originally pledged, reflecting the “free nationwide publicity” he has been receiving. Trump canceled a planned $15 million ad buy this summer due to the media saturation he was already enjoying.

“Publicity” is the operative term in Donald Trump’s public relations efforts. In his textbook The Practice of Public Relations, Fraser Seitel describes publicity as dealing directly with the media to generate coverage, “either by initiating the communication or by reacting to inquiries.” Seitel deems publicity more powerful than advertising because it creates news content versus paid content, conveying a third-party endorsement.

Writing for Forbes, Seitel identifies Trump’s celebrity status as a pillar of his public relations success. Trump has conducted nonstop publicity since the 1970s in support of his business ventures and his brand. This duration in the public eye outstrips the seemingly perennial campaigning of any other candidate including Hillary Clinton.

Public Speaking: On The Tonight Show, Jimmy Fallon praised Donald Trump for his ability to speak “off the cuff.” Trump verified that he speaks without notes or teleprompter to maintain eye contact and overall connection with the audience. Carmine Gallo reinforces the strength of Trump’s extemporaneous style, citing a Stanford study that leaders who make extensive eye contact while speaking are perceived as more competent.

In his textbook The Art of Public Speaking, Stephen Lucas says that a properly executed extemporaneous speech–with the speaker referring to an outline versus reading a scripted presentation word for word–can have “the spontaneity and enthusiasm of an unrehearsed talk.” The ability to increase eye contact with the audience is a benefit of this speaking approach. Trump’s terse syntax and punchlines also substantiate his abandonment of the traditional political script per Barton Swaim, former speechwriter for politician Mark Sanford.

Conclusion: Fraser Seitel presents three main communication theories in The Practice of Public Relations

  • The content is the message
  • The medium is the message
  • The person is the message

Trump most obviously aligns with the last theory focusing on the person, with charisma being the primary attribute. At the same time, Trump exemplifies the second theory popularized by Marshall McLuhan; he commands every medium, establishing himself in the traditional media era of broadcast and print, fluent in today’s social media.

The first theory emphasizing content constitutes the unknown about the Trump candidacy. Critics gave Trump less-than-stellar marks in his September 16 debate performance for lacking specifics. His public comments continue to be insulting and incendiary. Still, he leads in the polls among GOP candidates.

Can Trump’s main competitors defeat him through mastery of one of the above communication theories? Per polling conducted after September 16, Carly Fiorina was considered the winner of the GOP debate due to her displayed knowledge of the issues–content is the message, where Trump has made little effort to assert himself. News media have echoed this victory–medium is the message, as third-party endorsement and social media sharing validate the conclusion, boosting Fiorina’s share of media attention. In the same polling, Ben Carson held the highest favorability rating–person is the message, Trump’s greatest strength.

Should Trump change his ways if upcoming polls reveal a shift away from him? Many detected a more conventional stance in the September 16 debate. Columnist Ramesh Ponnuru offers a cautionary headline: “What if the New Trump is just…Boring?”

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The Atomic Press Release

August 6 marks the anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Official announcement came through a press release issued by President Harry Truman:

Sixteen hours ago an American airplane dropped one bomb on Hiroshima, an important Japanese Army base. That bomb had more power than 20,000 tons of T.N.T. It had more than two thousand times the blast power of the British “Grand Slam” which is the largest bomb ever yet used in the history of warfare.

The Japanese began the war from the air at Pearl Harbor. They have been repaid many fold. And the end is not yet. With this bomb we have now added a new and revolutionary increase in destruction to supplement the growing power of our armed forces. In their present form these bombs are now in production and even more powerful forms are in development.

It is an atomic bomb. It is a harnessing of the basic power of the universe. The force from which the sun draws its power has been loosed against those who brought war to the Far East…

Arthur W. Page, a legendary figure in public relations, wrote the release. Son of the co-founder of the Doubleday, Page & Co. publishing house, Mr. Page served as AT&T’s VP of Public Relations. During World War II, he oversaw the Joint Army and Navy Committee on Welfare and Recreation and was responsible for numerous communications and morale programs.

Noel L. Griese is the author of a definitive biography on Mr. Page. According to his account, Secretary of War Henry Stimson summoned Mr. Page to full-time duty in April 1945 and briefed him soon after on the Manhattan Project. The Trinity test blast would take place in the desert of Alamogordo, NM, on July 16. Mr. Page was asked to write the release that ultimately would be read to reporters at the White House on the day of the Hiroshima bombing while President Truman was at sea returning from the Potsdam Conference.

Arthur W. Page is credited with writing the most momentous press release in history. Whereas the 1969 moon landing–the 20th century’s other signature event–was beamed live to television audiences, Page’s release alone was the public’s introduction to the atomic age. It is likely the last time a sheaf of paper would change the world.

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V for Victory and Viral

Churchill_VJuly 19 marks the anniversary of World War II’s “V for Victory” campaign. New York Times article of the day describes it as a “nerve war” against the Nazis in occupied Europe. Launched by the BBC, championed by Winston Churchill, and executed by countless brave people in conquered countries, V for Victory was quintessential propaganda. It was also viral marketing in an era when the only computers were a handful of top-secret, room-sized machines (also part of the fight against the Nazis, used to break their coded messages).

The concept began in early 1941 with a BBC radio broadcast by Belgian refugee Victor De Lavelaye. He urged those under occupation to use “V” as a rallying symbol, the first letter in the French “Victoire,” the Flemish “Vrijheid,” and the English “Victory.” BBC editors embraced the concept, and the service beamed the official campaign to occupied Europe.

Per the NYT account, a BBC announcer with the nom-de-guerre “Colonel V. Britton” read a statement from Prime Minister Churchill:

The V sign is the symbol of the unconquerable will of the occupied territories and a portent of the fate awaiting Nazi tyranny. So long as the peoples continue to refuse all collaboration with the invader it is sure that his cause will perish and that Europe will be liberated.

Col.  Britton urged listeners to create “V” graffiti, to chalk or paint the letter on walls and pavement. The “V” theme continued as it was construed as the Roman symbol for the number “5.” Listeners were instructed to read Daniel 5, beginning with the fifth verse–the “writing on the wall” foretelling the downfall of the Babylonian empire that had enslaved the Jews.

Additionally, Col. Britton told the audience to tap out Morse code for the letter “V,” three dots and a dash for the benefit of friend and invader alike. That rhythm mimicked the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth (again, V as 5), a motif likened to “fate knocking at the door,” an extra affront to the Germans that co-opted the greatest work of one of their greatest composers. The first notes of Beethoven’s Fifth became the BBC’s call sign for its broadcasts to continental Europe throughout the war.

V for Victory spread across Europe, as one defiantly drawn or tapped “V” sparked another and another. Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels quickly countered, claiming the campaign was a Third Reich invention signifying the German “Viktoria.” The Nazis posted their “V” on banners and newspaper front pages and used Beethoven’s Fifth in their radio broadcasts. It is true brilliance when you can get the competition (enemy) to carry your message.

V for Victory was viral marketing. A major media platform, the BBC, created the spark and the people did the rest. The great communicator of the age, Winston Churchill, continually flashed the V sign for photographers, maintaining his role in the movement. Seven decades before social media let people strike blows against dictators and report from battlefields, V for Victory gave voice to Hitler’s involuntary–and temporary–subjects.

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