Trump triumphs: Election 2016 lessons for PR pros

By Rob Pasquinucci

This isn’t the blog post I thought I’d be writing a few days following the election. If the widely-predicted results of the voting happened, I’d share a few post-mortem notes about how Trump (or Clinton, for that matter) didn’t handle crisis communication well. But the surprising result offers some valuable lessons for PR pros. Here are some that come to mind: 

Message matters

Rob Pasquinucci is a content strategist at Intrinzic.

Rob Pasquinucci is a content strategist at Intrinzic.

Whether you like or loathe the president-elect, he had a consistent theme that resonated deeply with the electorate. “Make America Great Again,” emblazoned on countless red ball caps, is easy to understand and remember. He also was authentic – Trump was Trump, whether firing off ill-advised tweets at 3 a.m. or making incendiary comments at a rally.

Meanwhile, the ever-wonky, glued-to-talking-points Hillary Clinton’s message was a collection of unmemorable phrases designed to offer a pat on the back to every Democratic special interest group, as Boston Globe reporter Matt Viser’s article points out. Even her tagline – “I’m With Her,” is focused on the candidate, not the country.

So, the takeaway here? Politicians are brands. And, just as corporate brands, they need to have a story and true character that connects with the audience and builds trust. Once that’s achieved, the candidate can enjoy the power of brand loyalty, as we saw during this election cycle. Trump’s people stayed with him through every scandal, controversy and kerfuffle.

Digital power

There are several election cycles that represent the “firsts” for using a new medium to connect with voters. FDR was the first to use radio. John F. Kennedy used TV. Obama was the first to truly maximize social media to raise money. I’d argue that Trump used social media – particularly Twitter – as a conduit to speak directly to his supporters, many of whom were clearly overlooked by the mainstream media.

This piece from Cision outlines how social media conversations and engagement shaped the election. I note that Donald Trump dominated those conversations by a nearly 3-1 margin. My friend Dave Almacy’s D.C.-based  digital agency put together a scorecard on the candidates’ social following. Not surprising, Trump’s numbers on Twitter and Facebook are the highest.

Crisis? What crisis?

Both campaigns were rocked by crises, and both responded in ways no public relations pro would likely recommend.

Let’s start with Trump. Every time he had an “open-mouth-insert-wingtip” moment, he would double down, seemingly digging a deeper hole for himself. But, being Trump means never (or at least rarely) having to say you’re sorry (or offer an apology), and that played out throughout the campaign.

Meanwhile, Clinton dealt with the lingering story about her email server, along with questions about the Clinton Foundation. She and her campaign never fully addressed these issues, causing them to linger, fester and proved to be a millstone.