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?”

About Jason William Karpf

Author, Professor, Nonprofit Pro, Four-Time Jeopardy Champ
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1 Response to Public Relations, Public Speaking and Trump

  1. Bonnie says:

    Great article, Jason. Good lessons. Thanks for posting the link for this on LinkedIn. I gained new insight on these subjects you teach, especially in regard to Mr. Trump. The debate was interesting the other night. As a result of just reading your article here, I reflected on Trump’s presence in front of the public in that debate. Publicity, success, celebrity status and the ability to speak without notes or a teleprompter doesn’t necessarily help one get the facts straight though, does it?! I noticed that Trump and some of the other candidates referred to the July Supreme Court ruling as if it was the law of the land. Huckabee was the only one to mention that only Congress can make a law. I wonder how many watching got that. In case you missed that part, it’s here starting at minute 42:13 to about minute 44:45 on this video of the debate:

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