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Communications US Presidential Election Crisis PR

Trumped up charges: How every PR crisis becomes an opportunity for Donald Trump

By Jane Wilson

March 30, 2016 | 4 min read

Donald Trump’s campaign manager was charged yesterday for allegedly assaulting reporter Michelle Fields in the media scrum following a press conference in Florida. In the last 24 hours, Team Trump has responded in four stages: deny it happened, play it down as no big deal, portray the reporter as the perpetrator and Trump as victim then finally end with the sibling’s retort ‘you’re just being a baby’.

To put this incident and its anti-textbook response in context, one must turn to another recent Trump campaign gaffe. Last month, Trump tweeted ‘First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they hate you, then you win’, erroneously attributing the quote to Mahatma Ghandi. He was, in fact, paraphrasing a quote by union leader Nicholas Klein addressing the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America in 1918. That in itself was apparently an attempt to right the wrongs of an earlier gaffe when he quoted Mussolini… but I digress.

That (mis)quote sums up the Trump response and three important factors around his reputation:

  1. Trump has so far been immune to problems that would have killed off lesser mortals.
  2. Trump doesn’t follow the rules.
  3. Trump sees every event (good or bad) as an opportunity to peddle the Trump story.

Let’s look first at his apparent immunity to the normal rules of mainstream corporate or political reputation. So far in the campaign he’s called for a ban on Muslims entering the US, said he’ll build a wall between the US and Mexico and make Mexico pay, claimed climate change is a Chinese conspiracy, insulted women, disabled people, Hispanics and African Americans (all while following up with the ‘some of my best friends are’ routine) and generally taken the attitude that his campaign is bigger than the need to stick absolutely to the truth. And none of this seems to have done him any harm.

In fact, latest polls show a growing distance between the frontrunner and his Republican rivals with a CNN/ORC poll beating his closest rival Cruz by 16 percentage points at 47 per cent. This track record of immunity has bred even greater levels of arrogance in the Trump camp which in turn guided their response to this incident.

Which brings me to the next point about Trump. He doesn’t follow the rules and that’s part of his shtick. Even though he is a billionaire, he has successfully presented himself as being on the side of the little guy, being anti-establishment and incorruptible. By flaunting the normal expected rules of crisis response, he plays up to his image and the supporters appear to like him the more for it.

And Trump knows this. It’s why he is able to turn every incident into an opportunity. In this case, he’s coming out fighting as a loyal boss. By sticking by his guy and claiming he’d show the same loyalty to his country he’s attempting not only to appeal to the average American Joe but he’s also prepared to stand up to the establishment and fight for what he believes in.

Time will tell whether he will continue to hold this line when the publicity dies down or whether this incident will dent Trump’s reputation. It’s hard to see how his reputation will suffer, given that this is exactly the sort of thing on which it has been built.

I’m not sure Trump paused long enough to consider his course of action but in one sense he is bang on traditional reputation advice to be true to thyself. If nothing else this response is 24-carat Trump.

Jane Wilson is managing director of MHP Communications

Communications US Presidential Election Crisis PR

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