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What Donald Trump can teach us about PR

December 1, 2017 - Daniel Liddle

Ask anyone in your close vicinity what a “Donald Trump” is and you’ll receive a range of emotions. Usually with enough anger worthy of an electroencephalogram graph. The web is that volatile that only extremes appear to prevail. Which is why Trumps digital PR works so well.

Going viral or virality is also one of the many detriments in any digital campaign. It’s something that Donald Trump seems to be able to whip up in an astonishment. It appears akin to black magic. But there is a science behind this or as far as scientific methods go when it comes to marketing.

In the book Growth Hacker Marketing: A Primer on the Future of PR, Marketing, and Advertising the former American Apparel guru Ryan Holiday writes:

“Jonah Berger, a social scientist well-known for his studies of virality, explains that publicness is one of the most crucial factors in driving something’s spread. As he writes in his book Contagious, ‘Making things more observable makes them easier to imitate, which makes them more likely to become popular’”

This core principle is at the heart of a successful PR campaign. Your company needs to be able to communicate with the public. This is something increasingly difficult with the aforementioned chaotic nature of communication in the digital age. It is also one of the key factors for Donald Trump’s success.

Trump needs a true spotlight not on his vitriol but on the tools that he uses to communicate. Whether you use them or not – it’s worth being made aware of the weapons at yours and his disposal.

Say Hello to John Miller

It’s common knowledge that before he was POTUS – Trump would often call up journalists pretending to be a publicist. He would use pseudonyms, answering the phone as John Miller. He would become the sole source for many stories including affairs, break-ups and business deals. This is in essence what Donald Trump still does, albeit without John Miller – the only person Donald Trump ever regretted firing.

@realdonaldtrump is the black monolith from 2001 Space Odyssey. It exists as a cosmic knowledge-expanding feed for his chosen audience, for which, a lot of the time, he is the sole source. Or the information he shares is only positive for himself. Whether this information is actually factual doesn’t matter.
The trustworthiness of the information is important. Because Donald Trump knows his own audience, but he also knows his adversaries. This is key to his sensationalist personality. He’s able to grab the attention of everyone on the political spectrum.

The fact that you talk about him, and that I write this blog, shows how successful his PR has become. Those opposed to his view can’t stop talking about him – often not even on his policies, but on an ideological level. Some might call this a disaster but others would pay millions of dollars for this type of exposure. To be able to cast a wide net and always get a catch when it comes to engagement.

It seems Donald Trump takes his inspiration from Oscar Wilde:

“There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.”

Smoke and Mirrors: The Art of Distraction

Donald Trump has got the practice of creating chaos down to a fine art. He knows how to spin negative press around. To make it focus on something else entirely. Just look at how he was able to turn the phrase “Fake News” into his own vocabulary. There’s something similar going on across the globe when it comes political strategy. The BBC documentary filmmaker Adam Curtis compares this to a phrase called “Non-linear warfare”. This was developed by Vladislav Surkov, an advisor to Vladmir Putin. It’s a tool for publishing conflicting information to confuse or manipulate people into a frantic fury so no-one knows what’s real.

Adam Curtis goes into visual detail of the conflicting information that Trump curates which can be seen in this clip (contains strong language)


It’s a process akin to a form of psychological warfare. What can we as marketers and PR specialists learn from this?Distraction is probably the wrong term. But, your business will want to take negative press on the chin. Think of ways to counteract negative engagement. It’s always best to plan ahead. So, make a plan for when that time might arise. This could be in the form of a special offer, discounts or early product launch.

Unless you’re running for office don’t mix your messages. Make sure you follow a clear guideline that aligns towards your business. A bit of psychology is okay when it comes to tapping into a consumer’s mindset. But, I wouldn’t recommend psychological warfare for moral and for ROI reasons.

Marketing strategies and big data

One of the most effective strategies that Donald Trump has perfected throughout his political career is consistency. There are many key issues that Trump has not shifted his views on and has repeated verbatim his delight or disgust. This lack of flip-flopping also resonates with the audience as it gives the appearance of being authentic. This is something you’ll have to think about when it comes to your PR campaign – what is your message and what do you have to contribute to the debate?

Also, think about slogans. Trump has heavily marketed “Build a wall”, “Make America Again” and this type of repetitive messaging not only showcases Trump ideology but he’s managed to turn it into a profit.

Despite the chaos, there was actually a statistical backing to Trumps electoral campaign. We’ve already met Cambridge Analytica in a previous blog, who created an extremely data-orientated remarketing campaign. This shows that, on the back of any great PR campaign, is a well thought out Digital Marketing strategy based on through audience insight.

All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players

When it comes to Trump’s relationship with the public and press, he has broken every rule. But, all and all, he is a showman. And Donald Trump is not an anomaly. This showmanship is as old as time, and Trump has often been compared to the 19th-century American politician and fraudster P.T. Barnum. Some of the common traits they share is being “entrepreneurs” from an early age, engineering false information to entice audiences and, more relevantly, they are entertainers.

Donald Trump, no matter what your persuasion, is entertainment. Something that news outlets latched onto quite quickly as a way to boost ratings. This is argued to actually how he got a elected so may have been an unintentional consequence. But, it takes you into the mindset of the political campaign. Imagining the output of your campaigns like TV ratings instead of polls or conversions. Donald Trump didn’t care about guaranteed votes. He wants as many eyeballs watching and following him as he knew the age-old phrase:

“There is no such thing as bad publicity”

A classic line from P.T. Barnum.

Daniel Liddle

Daniel Liddle

Digital Marketing Executive

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