Is the candidate re-writing the rules or simply a celebrity getting special treatment?

Trump-Gage-Skidmore.jpgFor weeks we have been trying to understand the implications -- if there are any -- of the phenomenon of Donald Trump's success to date in his pursuit of the Republican nomination. As has been well documented, Mr. Trump has violated many of the fundamental rules of public speaking and media interactions, yet he has established and held onto a solid base of support. 

Some aspecs of his communications strategy seem pretty straightforward and are rooted in polling that suggests a portion of voters find conventional political behavior repulsive:

  • He espouses a hatred for many journalists, which excites those who distrust the media and believe bias unfairly colors the way news is presented. A September 2015 Gallup poll found that only four in 10 Americans say they have "a great deal" or "a fair amount" of trust and confidence in the mass media to report the news fully, accurately and fairly. This ties the historic lows on this measure set in 2014 and 2012.

  • In general, he says things without a filter, which constantly gets him attention from those who are mortified, but also satisfies those who thirst for a candidate who speaks his mind. His strong language regarding Muslims were broadly criticized, but polling shows there is a rationale for anti-Muslim rhetoric. Pew Research found that "four-in-ten want the next President to speak bluntly about Islamic extremists even if the statements are critical of Islam as a whole."

  • He criticizes and picks fights incessantly, which strengthens the resolve of those who believe the deck is stacked and the system needs to be disupted.

At the same time, Mr. Trump is doing an exceptional job of executing a conventional communcations strategy:

  • Reagan-Button.jpgHe has a simple and memorable slogan, "Make America Great Again." Of course, he cribbed the slogan from Ronald Reagan, who used "Let's Make America Great Again," during the 1980 campaign. None of the other campaigns in either party have accomplished this fundamental feat of branding.

  • Despite being unscripted in his speeches, Trump does a good job of being disciplined about message delivery. He builds on his slogan by talking about how America doesn't win anymore. This reflects the anger and frustration of a portion of the population. Gallop recently found that 39 percent of Americans say the most important problem facing the country today is problems with the economy. He returns again and again to the key points he wants to make, using consistent language that is sticky and memorable. Labeling his opponents as "Little Marco" and "Lying Ted Cruz" may seem childish and petty, but repetition is an effective technique that can quickly cement an idea in the public's consciousness.

  • He delivers his ideas in the form of simple stories that are compelling, interesting and easy to understand. As my brother observed, his tempo and word choices are akin to a guy in a Manhattan coffee shop spinning a yarn. Who among us hasn't imagined what the "huge beautiful wall," would actually look like?

  • He controls media interactions like a champ. He goes into each one with a clear idea of what he wants to achieve and he doesn't allow anything to distract him from that mission.

  • He makes an emotion-based case rather than an argument based on any particular ideology. While this has prompted his opponents to attempt to paint him as something other than Republican, they have missed the point that emotion is stronger and more lasting than dry facts or dogma. It also allows for flexibility, which we have seen Mr. Trump take advantage of when it suits him. 

Of course, there are plenty of other things that Mr. Trump does regularly that are jaw dropping and fly in the face of what we instruct our spokespersons to do. Here are a few examples:

  • He uses a lot of negative language. We train spokespersons to always use positive language. If faced with a negative question, turn the language around and speak only in positive terms. Mr. Trump does the opposite. 

  • His facial expressions are overwhelmingly negative. He furrows his eyebrows and often has downturned lips, which suggest anger or disgust. When we spot a spokesperson sending negative facial cues like this, we point out how the audience relies on facial expression to help them interpret the meaning of the information being communicated. If the facial expression is negative, chances are the audience will interpret the information in a negative light. If you are intending your information to be perceived positively, eliminate the negative facial cues.

  • He has an adverserial relationship with many journalists. I suspect that much of this is theater to cater to the the two thirds of Republicans and independent voters that Gallop's survey found distrust the media. In our media training, we emphasize that journalists can be a great conduit through which we can reach a broad community. They are not out to get you -- but they are out to get a great story that attracts an audience. We encourage our spokespersons to consider the journalist a storyteller who is gathering information to create an interesting tale. There's probably going to be a villain, a hero and some other characters. Our words and actions will determine the role we play in the story.

  • He spends a lot of time discussing his competition. We discourage using the names of the competition because it amounts to free exposure for them.

It is hard to say whether there are any broader implications of all this. Given the level of distrust of media, should we reconsider how spokespersons interact with journalists? Should we point out stupid questions and be more assertive about making our points? Should we dump the sound bites and encourage spokespersons to engage in plain talk? Or is Mr. Trump a one-off with such unique characteristics that none of his techniques can be applied to others?  

Following last week's debate, Marco Rubio's staff apparently decided to Trumpify their campaign, since conventional techniques had failed. Labeling Trump a "con artist," reading Trump tweets, making fun of the size of Trump's hands and generally adding a level of snark to his stump speeches seemed bizarre and ill conceived. Regardless, engaging Trump does not appear to have positively impacted Rubio's momentum or support. 

Photo by Gage Skidmore