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Donald Trump: A model for effective communication.
December 5, 2019

image credit: fortune.com

Controversial statement number one: Donald Trump is an effective communicator. 

Controversial statement number two: Organisations can learn from him.

I should preface this comment by saying that I’m not a fan of the 45th president of the United States or his policies but, I would argue, he’s an effective – if slightly unusual – communicator.

Donald Trump has engaged in his own individual style of diplomacy at the NATO 70th Anniversary Summit this week.  Shockingly rude he might have been, but he’s achieved some of his aims.  As a subject for media training and communications with the media; he’s worth studying.

I’ve worked on political campaigns across the UK and around the world and I’m fascinated by the way in which Mr Trump breaks almost all the rules of political campaigning.

Say what you like about “The Donald” but he knows his audience.  He connects with them in a way that many organisations and brands fail to do.  The New York Times and many in the media might be – understandably – furious with him and his pronouncements have offended millions of people, but he knows that they resonate with his core supporters.  Yes, he might talk rubbish, but he makes an emotional rather than a purely intellectual connection with the people he needs to persuade.

Whether it’s a PR campaign or a presentation, empathy and emotion are essential when it comes to creating a connection with your audience.  We’d all like to claim that we make decisions based on facts and a cool-headed analysis of the situation, but we know that it’s how we feel that drives us to do things.

As David Hume, the great eighteenth century Scottish Enlightenment philosopher put it, “Reason is, and ought to be the slave of the passions, and never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.”

For all her policies and what many regarded as sensible ideas, Hillary Clinton couldn’t make the simple emotional, human connection that Trump does – and, interestingly, that Bill Clinton and Barack Obama did.

For me the shrewdest analysis of Mr Trump’s appeal is summed up in the idea that his critics take him literally but not seriously, while his supporters take him seriously but not literally.  In other words, it’s the overall sense of what he’s about that his audience and his supporters appreciate rather than a detailed analysis of his policies.  That might sound irrational and infuriating but it’s a fact of life.

The message to companies and spokespeople is that you need to ensure that as well as having the right message you’re connecting with your audience’s emotions and empathy.“He talks like a seven-year-old,” a fellow journalist said to me dismissively as we watched an interview with Mr Trump.  Yes, he does, but in many ways that’s a compliment.  In my media training courses I often surprise participants by talking about the reading age of the language used by the Economist, the FT and the BBC Ten O’clock News.  You might not like what Trump says but you can’t deny that he uses simple, punchy language to say it.  He will always answer the question – unlike his colleagues and he’s also devoid of the meaningless clichés used by other politicians and business leaders.

Build a wall,” is what Donald Trump bellowed at his supporters endlessly during his election campaign.  Compare this with Theresa May’s general election mantra “strong and stable.”  I know what a wall looks like – I can see it, but I can’t see “strong and stable”.  As I’ve written before, if the former prime minister had backed up her slogan with some specific examples of what “strong and stable” looks like in practice more voters would have bought it.  You might not agree with the policy, but you couldn’t pretend that you didn’t understand it.

Donald Trump’s effective use of language – although not, of course, many people would say, his record on honesty and consistency in communications – is a reminder to organisations, spokespeople and business leaders to use simple language and to avoid clichés and unnecessary jargon.

Mr Trump has picked fights with The New York Times, the Washington Post, CNN and other news outlets and they’ve given him what he’s looking for.  One of the reasons why he’s such an effective communicator is that he knows his medium as well as his message and his audience.  The Times’ coverage of his record and his statement has, by any standards been forensic and accurate and the same could be said of many other long-established news outlets.

But Donald Trump and his communications team know that his audience doesn’t read, listen to or watch these outlets.  To the fury of many journalists, he’s leap-frogged what is now known pejoratively as “the mainstream media.”  As a reality TV star Trump is a maestro of social media, especially Twitter.

With some 66.7million followers he can talk directly to his audience, that is his base of hardcore voters, and know that his messages are reaching them exactly as they left him, without the inter-mediation of journalists.  As a journalist this worries and depresses me, after all, I want to see what politicians say tested for accuracy, put into context and balanced with alternative comment.  As a communications and adviser and media trainer, though, I’m full of admiration.

As I mentioned, I’m not a fan of the US President.  I can also point to a number of failings in his communications style.  First, he’s not consistent (is the NHS on the negotiating table or not?).  Somehow, because he’s Donald Trump, he seems to have got away with saying one thing one day and doing a complete volte-face a few days later.  Organisations, on the other hand, have to be consistent both in their message and their tone.

He also shoots from the hip.  As a journalist I love people who do this but as a communications expert and a media training consultant it really worries me.  You need to move more quickly than ever these days to handle the media, both social and conventional, but there’s always time to check and coordinate a message.

Even if his advisors ask him to stop and think before he Tweets, somehow I don’t think that Donald Trump would listen to them.  Those in the business, governmental and voluntary sector should, though.

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