I was originally going to write a little bit more about the roots of neoconservatism today, but I came across a beautiful piece of journalism about Donald Trump.
There's a lot to think about when you try to understand Trump and Trumpism: the theatre of politics, the popularity of bigotry, bullying as a legitimate form of public discourse, the possibility of a resurgence of genuine fascism in America.
|Trump is epochal. A world-historical man.|
What most interests me about Frank Rich's piece, at least for this blog, is how he describes the changes social media has caused in communications practice for political figures specifically and public figures in general. I think the public relations profession hasn’t yet grasped the radical nature and essence of this change.
Rich identifies, correctly I think, that the essence of Trump's ability to connect with people is his aura of authenticity. He isn’t kowtowing to donors like the Koch Brothers (as every other Republican is) because he's a billionaire and entirely self-financing his campaign. He isn’t relying on campaign communicators to craft his messages. He's just rattling off the in-your-face nationalism, xenophobia, bigotry, and brutish insults that connect so well with the Republican Party's base.
I mean, yes, it's horrible. But it's still effective. Says more about America than Trump himself.
As a communications practitioner, what most intrigued me about Rich's long-read was the contrast of the improvisational Trump campaign with the Clinton campaign, whose communications aides manage every message with infinitesimal attention.
The most insightful and hilarious element of this contrast comes when Rich discusses a New York Times article that centres on an interview with several top Clinton public relations staff, where they announce the strategy they're building to display Clinton’s authenticity. I’ll just quote Rich in full.
“By announcing this 'new focus' to the Times, which included ‘new efforts to bring spontaneity’ to a candidacy that ‘sometimes seems wooden,’ these strategists were at once boasting of their own (supposed) political smarts and denigrating their candidate, who implicitly was presented as incapable of being human without their direction and scripts.”
Aside from the problem of discussing strategy on the public record before you’ve even started, there’s a profound arrogance in the act of making this statement that sows the seeds of the strategy’s own destruction.
|The question is how you can plan spontaneity.|
The Clinton campaign strategy is to strengthen her appeal to voters by emphasizing her authenticity, her humanity. But the strategists say on the record at one of the most read news outlets in the country that they plan on manufacturing this authenticity in their strategy sessions.
Implicit in this public admission is the presumption that the public will accept the genuineness of your client’s authenticity when you've just gone on record about how you'll manufacture it!
The social media era has given the internet-savvy a crash course in general media literacy. People are constantly exposed to – and participate in – media messages that flow with a speed faster than it is possible to plan. This radically transformed media ecology has created a fantastically mature audience in a short amount of time.
More people are able to tell a truly spontaneous expression from a massaged, planned, focus-grouped expression by the subtleties of written tone and the flavour of reaction. Digital communications media doesn't make people illiterate, as was the original fear of texting culture among the older generation.
People are becoming hyper-literate.
This isn't true of all people, of course. But it’s true of a critical mass that changes the character of knowledge and critique in public discourse. The new public square is the global lightspeed transmissions of our 4G networks and smartphones.
Communications practitioners and strategists will need to follow different rules than the top-down approach of micro-managed messaging that characterizes traditional public relations plans and approaches.
1. A message is now an idea, not a phrase.
Standard practice in public relations is that a message is a key phrase, repeated over and over again. But when someone says the exact same, relatively complex, phrase repeatedly in a social media conversation, it's clear that they're just repeating a talking point. So their opponents dismiss them and they lose social capital.
So a communicator has to express her key message in different ways, varying how she discusses an idea by platform and conversation. To do that, she must understand the idea that the message expresses.
2. Train your foot soldiers VERY well.
Sending someone to Twitter for a communications strategy with a five minute briefing and a single sheet of talking points is like sending a soldier into Aleppo with barely enough training to shoot her gun properly. Without a gun. You need a deep, nuanced understanding of how the strategy justifies every message concept, and how each message expresses its specific element of the strategy. Otherwise, you'll trip up under pressure (and likely also verbal assault).
I can express this point better this way: even the lowliest agency intern needs the same knowledge of a strategy as its chief architect.
3. Trust everyone.
This follows from the previous two points. Making a communications strategy work in the high-intensity public square we now have requires a team as tight as the Seven Samurai. Everyone must be able to perform their required roles to their maximum talent and flexibility. The least slip-up can create a disaster for the strategy, and fear of punishment only makes a person nervous.
When people get nervous, they make mistakes. So no matter the rank, everyone in a strategy has to treat each other as equals, and have each other’s back when it's needed.