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How Donald Trump Has Re-Defined Public Relations

Not an hour seems to go by without some kind of headline-inducing, up-in-arms response to a seemingly provocative public discourse from President-elect Donald Trump. At no time in history has the response from media and the broader public to an ongoing litany of comments and opinions been as swift, widespread and ongoing – and polarizing.

Indeed, whether through his direct attacks on the press or his seemingly unfiltered musings on social media, the incoming 45th President of the United States has already re-written the rules on messaging and communications.

From a public relations perspective, it’s fair to say that Trump’s approach has been nothing short of a horror show. From inconsistent and incorrect messaging to outright attacks on individuals, personalities and the media, Trump has already made himself the poster boy of what not to do when it comes to communicating in the public realm.

Or has he?

While it has been both easy and fair game to criticize Trump’s numerous public comments and rebukes (“Sad!” has already become the lexicon du jour), the truth is Trump has already re-written the public relations playbook.

By definition, public relations is the professional maintenance of a favorable public image by an individual, company or organization. More specifically, it is about how the public interacts with that particular individual, company or organization, and vice versa.

Implicit is the notion that the interaction is generally going to be positive. In Trump’s case, however, the ongoing interaction, much of it one-sided in the form of unsolicited opinions and responses via Twitter, has been if nothing else provocative and confrontational.

For PR professionals, provocation and confrontation is anything but a strategy. Save for extreme cases of public malice or, in business, hostile takeovers, the point of public relations is to engage the public in a way that consistently conveys the key messages that are best for the individual or company – most of the time in a way that diminishes potential backlash rather than inflames it.

Not so for Trump. Indeed, beyond almost-constant rebukes against various media organizations and reporters, and even beyond talk of opening up libel laws and making it easier to sue journalists and news outlets, Trump’s PR strategy has been exactly the opposite.

Whether about China and the Middle East, repealing Obamacare or responding to the latest SNL skit, from a PR standpoint Trump’s immediate, off-the-cuff, swing-from-the-fences responses are, in fact, strategy.

What Trump has done has redefined public relations as publicity – literally doing away with the traditional pillars of messaging and talking points and replacing them with direct, no-holds-barred dialogue on deeply polarizing issues that, no matter what side of the political or ideological fence one might be on, are giving him visibility.

Indeed, rather than focusing on getting a consistent message across, Trump’s approach has been to raise issues at any time and in any way that strikes him – no matter what the stakes are or frankly what the messaging even is, and then deal with it afterwards.

Ironically, the results to date have been the same, if not better. While Trump’s approval ratings may be among the lowest for an incoming U.S. President in history, his “ratings,” if one were to measure his brand, his awareness, his visibility, his reach, his impact, and his “voice” in terms of the media and broader public hearing him, is right off the charts.

As counterintuitive as it may seem, Trump’s PR “strategy” is actually working, and working extremely well. And chances are he will continue to use sensationalism as his method of choice – for no other reason that at the end of the day, he and his advisors will still have control of the proverbial soap box and microphone – which will allow them to segregate the topics and issues they want on the agenda from the hyperbole and innuendo Trump and others have not quite clarified should be taken seriously.

Key to the success of reality television is its ability to engage and inflame the audience – polarize viewers into siding with certain individuals by literally scripting drama, and leaving the audience guessing what will happen next. This was clearly behind the success of Trump’s own reality show, The Apprentice. And it is currently part of Trump’s approach to taking over the White House: keep the audience tuned in and engaged, and keep them guessing.

It is on this level that his characterizations of people, namely his critics, have continued to propel his relationship with the public.

Case in point was a lawsuit last year against Trump by political strategist Cheryl Jacobus, who had alleged Trump defamed her when she criticized him on network television. New York Supreme Court judge Barbara Jaffe dismissed the $4 million lawsuit, though noted in her written decision that Trump’s tweets “…are rife with vague and simplistic insults such as 'loser' or 'total loser' or 'totally biased loser,' 'dummy' or 'dope' or 'dumb,' 'zero/no credibility,' 'crazy' or 'wacko' and 'disaster,' all deflecting serious consideration.”

In other words, right or wrong, good or bad, PR turned publicity.

Of course, it is difficult to fathom the traditional approach to public relations of generating positive, consistent messaging and, most importantly, trust between individuals and companies and the media and public being replaced for good by shock-factor, fear- and mistrust-generating vitriolic verbal diarrhea in a never-ending chase for headlines and publicity.

Then again, odds were against Donald Trump becoming next President of the United States.

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