Why the Trump mugshot proves he is no mug when it comes to comms
Like many of us, The Drum’s editor-in-chief, Gordon Young, was blown away by Donald Trump turning an infamous mugshot into a PR win that could somehow put him back in the White House.
Thanks to Donald Trump, the old phrase a good picture is worth 1,000 words is in urgent need of an upgrade.
His mugshot has become an instant icon. It is everywhere – one of the few mugshots that will even appear on mugs – and will be one of the defining images of our time.
Whatever your views on his politics, you have to admit Trump is a master at the art of communication. As such, his strategy deserves proper analysis – particularly among those who want to outflank him.
To most, being arrested and put through the booking process would be mortifying. However, Trump saw it as a marketing opportunity. He would have put considerable thought into that scowl. It would have been practiced and the planning ultimately paid off. It told stories on many levels, oozing unbridled anger and visceral determination.
The message received loud and clear was, ‘This is a man who aims to vanquish his opponents and win the White House.’
The whole episode at Fulton County Jail was a news management masterclass. Everything about it was designed to maximize media coverage. For example, the time of his surrender was deliberately picked to coincide with primetime news coverage.
Within hours, his supporters were given the option of buying merchandise emblazoned with the mugshot (it has already raised over $7m). Trump also returned to X, formerly known as Twitter, for the first time since 2021. He ‘Xeeted’ the picture to his 89 million followers.
It was the second time he had engaged with X in a few days and reminded the world of his communication skills.
Earlier in the week, he refused to participate in the first debate for those vying for the Republican 2024 nomination.
However, five minutes before the debate started on Fox News, Trump launched a 46-minute pre-recorded interview on X with Tucker Carlson, the former Fox anchor.
Both would have enjoyed to rain on the Fox parade. And it was interesting to note that Trump avoided the mistakes of Ron DeSantis, who launched his presidential bid on X. The difference was DeSantis went for a live stream and was hit with a series of glitches, which left it derided as the ‘biggest fail in campaign launch history.’
In contrast, reviews of the Trump pre-record were generally positive, with many contrasting his humor and bombast with the safe and staid feel of the official debate.
With 91 indictments, the position Trump now faces as we head towards 2024 is very different from 2016. But his comms playbook is very similar.
Simple and memorable slogan: The ‘Make America Great Again’ slogan was concise and resonated with a sense of nostalgia for a perceived better past. Its simplicity made it easy for supporters to remember and rally behind. It is being rolled out again in 2024 but is being augmented with ‘Never Surrender,’ a line inspired by his legal battles.
Emotional appeal: The campaign tapped into strong emotions, such as patriotism, pride and frustration, which resonated with a significant portion of the population that felt left behind by political elites. The Republicans have already co-opted the new working class anthem by Oliver Anthony, who wrote Rich Men North of Richmond. It’s well worth a listen if you want a sense of the Trump constituency (although Anthony claims he is apolitical).
Anti-establishment sentiment: The campaign effectively positioned Trump as an outsider and a disruptor of the political establishment. This appealed to voters who were dissatisfied with traditional politicians and sought change. His current legal travails reinforce this message.
Strong branding: The campaign built a strong and consistent brand identity, utilizing the signature red hats with the Maga slogan. This created a sense of unity among supporters and made them easily recognizable. The mugshot merchandise will build momentum on this front.
Utilization of social media: The campaign leveraged social media platforms, particularly X, to directly communicate with the public and circumvent traditional media filters. This allowed Trump to speak directly to his base and set the narrative. Since then, he has launched his social network Truth. But it is his return to X which could build his reach.
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Controversial statements: Trump’s unfiltered and sometimes provocative statements garnered significant media attention. This approach kept him in the spotlight and solidified his position as an anti-establishment figure.
Effective use of data analytics: The campaign utilized data analytics to identify key swing states and demographic groups, allowing them to tailor their messaging and allocate resources more strategically.
Rally and event strategy: Trump’s frequent rallies and events across the country provided him with direct interaction with his supporters and generated enthusiasm. These events were covered by both traditional and social media, amplifying his message. And he seems to love doing them.
Simplification of complex issues: Trump’s communication style often involved simplifying complex policy issues into easily digestible sound bites, making his message accessible to a broader audience. A great example of this is how he lampoons opponents with nicknames that stick as they distill a range of issues into one caustic statement – Crooked Hilary or Ron DeSanctimonious are good examples. I, for one, put his Sesame Street speaking style down to a lack of intelligence – but Trump is not as stupid as he sounds.
This strategy is likely to see him becoming the Republican nomination, at least. Whether he wins the presidency again is more of an open question.
Many swing voters are fed up with the psychodrama and a large proportion think he is guilty as charged. However, despite the odds, you would be a fool to write him off – and if he does win, he can lay claim to being the true communicator-in-chief.