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Mission Impossible: Trump’s Media Handling

On Friday, Donald Trump becomes the 45th President of the United States.

News conferences will provide us with the opportunity to watch communication at the highest level.

But based on his first since being elected, they may only provide examples of the wrong way to handle them.

His trademark has been the relentless breaking of the rules that the rest of us have to follow.

I feel certain that continuing down the wrong road will sooner or later make his job impossible.

So while Donald J. Trump takes that route, let’s learn five things that the rest of us in business, public service, sport and the charity sector can do when communicating through traditional and social media.

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Rule 1: The power of three

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Initially, the news conference was aimed at explaining how Mr. Trump would separate his business empire from new constitutional duties.

But I’m unsure what Trump’s message was last week – other than that he is right and everyone else is wrong.

His conference rambled in so many different directions that it was impossible to pick out a “news line” for the internet and major news channels.

Instead, be clear on a maximum of three main points you want to make.

The test of success will be if people who’ve watched TV or read online can discuss your key points in a restaurant, a pub or at home that night.

If so, you’ve got the message across clearly.

Outgoing President Obama is fond on the Power of Three.

We can all learn from that – leaving the audience with three clear points.

Rule 2: Attack the argument – rather than the messenger

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Trump’s news conference was dominated by reporting of suggestions that Russia held footage of the incoming President behaving badly in a sexual indiscretion.

He described the suggestion as “fake news” – without proper back-up as to why that would be the case.

Instead, he attacked the TV network CNN, the news website Buzzfeed and the oldest broadcasting organisation in the world, the BBC.

Their crime was reporting the “fake news” in some form of other.

But he missed the point that every other news organisation at the conference would also now be reporting it – because he was majoring on it!

Rather than dismissing the story, he dismissed each of the named organisations and therefore criticised everybody who spent any time following these organisations’ output.

It was ugly, cringe–worthy and un–presidential.

If he continues to do that with these and other news organisations, he will simply build animosity among many who report his words.

And that will affect further how the words are reported.

Instead, he needs to knock down the argument with hard facts.

He needs to replace what he sees as misinformation with clear information.



Rule 3: Act with dignity – rather than bullishness

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Outgoing President Obama has oozed charm over the last eight years, regardless of what the world has thrown at him.

While many have criticised his effectiveness, few would criticise his dignity.

By contrast, Mr. Trump gave a masterclass in bullishness.

It was characterised by continually telling a CNN reporter:

“Shut Up!”

What made it even more undignified was our inability to hear the reporter’s questions, leaving us just to hear the incoming President shouting

“Shut Up. Shut Up. Shut Up. Shut Up.”

Telling anyone to stop talking – instead of answering their question at a news conference – is the denial of free speech, rather than the celebration of it.

Increasingly, we see our politicians ignore questions from reporters if they dislike them.

If you’re leading an organisation, you need to answer the most awkward questions to satisfy your greatest critics.

That way, you can bring more people onside.

Rule 4: Be positive

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Mr. Trump has on several occasions criticised America’s intelligence services over information they’ve provided, which proves inconvenient to his imminent presidency.

The people providing that information will be his eyes and ears for the next four years.

He has lambasted sections of the media as well as political opponents.

The media will be reporting his actions over the next four years – and will describe his victories and defeats.

Even President Putin’s Russia – singled out for praise in the past – received some words of criticism at the conference.

Every person or organisation he criticises has the potential to become an enemy.

But when you congratulate or praise in public, the opposite is the case.

Typically, in the event of flood, disaster, health crisis, politicians rightly praise those who prevent a bad situation becoming worse.

The police, armed services, fire services, nurses, doctors.

One of the few lines of praise from Trump was about the Trump Organisation.

Our rule is simple: whenever possible, praise in public and criticise in private.

Once more, it helps you bring more people on to your side.

Rule 5: Tell the truth

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On our media training courses – held mainly at our Glasgow studios – we insist that clients stick to the truth in interviews and in preparing news conferences.

It’s difficult to admit when things have gone wrong – especially when we have got them wrong.

But if you lie about the situation, you risk the story becoming your lies rather than your mistakes.

And that’s a much greater crime.

Famously, a lie brought down the British War Minister John Profumo in 1963 – forcing his resignation and haunting him to his death, despite a lifetime of charitable work that followed these events.

Then there was this statement:

“I did not have sexual relations with that woman – Miss Lewinsky”.

President Bill Clinton nearly lost his office over these 11 words.

They certainly defined his presidency.

PHOTO CREDIT: Ralph Alswang Photographer 202-487-5025 ralph@ralphphoto.com www.ralphphoto.com

Should anything Donald Trump said in last week’s news conference turn out to be a lie, a bad situation will have become much worse.

Even taking account of the era in which we live where there is a greater acceptance of public lies than ever before.

Our rule: Tell the Unpalatable Truth – even ahead of a White Lie.

Finally, in the movies, on TV drama and in news conferences for decades, I’ve watched presidents sign off with their trademark:

“God Bless You All, God Bless America.”

By contrast, the incoming president – in describing what would happen if his sons messed up his business empire when he was busy being president – chose a different sign-off.

“You’re fired” he threatened, as his last words of the day.

Could it be that the American Presidency has become a TV reality show?

Only the next four years will tell us.

But one thing is for sure: by breaking each of the above rules, his mission is becoming more difficult every single day.



Written by Bill McFarlan – Executive Chairman of  Pink Elephant Communications in Glasgow.

Photo credit: AlishaV ; Gage Skidmore ; Joe Crimmings Photography; Sister72; Center for American Progress Action Fund via Foter.com / CC BY-ND

17th January 2017 Featured in: Blog By:

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