What the 2016 U.S. Election can Teach PR Experts

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On the eve of the inauguration of Donald Trump as president of the United States, many pundits, pollsters and news analysts still struggled to understand an outcome few of them expected. As Financial PR professionals it is instructive to take a step back from the inflammatory language of the campaign and examine Mr. Trump’s core message, and why it was so appealing to millions of American voters.

But first, a bit of background. Economic data indicate that large numbers of American workers – particularly those in non-urban regions and in the American “rust belt” – are being left further and further behind by the economic revolution that is sweeping the globe. Largely driven by technology, this economic re-write is creating global economic polarization (rich getting richer; poor getting poorer) and concentrating wealth in the hands of a smaller and smaller group of people.

Donald Trump’s core message was simple: You are worse off then you were before (acknowledging and validating what his target market already knew or believed) and it’s the fault of government, immigrants and globalization (making it not the target market’s fault and giving them someone to blame). Mr. Trump also offered simple solutions: Decrease the size of government, eliminate “job killing” regulations, deport illegal immigrants, put America first by eliminating or renegotiating all of the “bad” trade deals that are sending jobs overseas, and bring back good-paying manufacturing jobs to the U.S.

In essence Mr. Trump’s message is the same message as that of nearly every successful presidential campaign, which is nicely summed up in a phase coined by James Carville – the strategist behind Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential win – “It’s the economy, stupid.”

Focusing on non-economic issues – “He’s not fit to be President” – and casting aspersions upon those that feel forgotten by government – “A basket of deplorables” – did not speak to the concerns of the key target market (demographic group) upon which U.S. elections often hinge. That is to say: Older, white suburban women. This lack of focus on economic issues by Mrs. Clinton’s campaign also did not energize many Americans who are concerned about their jobs and long-term financial security. This is not to say that Mrs. Clinton did not speak to the economy, rather that Mr. Trump hammered on this message every day and with easy to digest sound bites.

Will Mr. Trump’s solutions to the economic concerns of many Americans be effective? As Thomas Friedman wrote in his pre-election column in theNew York Times (“Donald Trump voters, Just Hear Me Out”), most of the job losses in America did not go overseas or to an undocumented immigrant, “they went to a microchip.” It seems likely technology will continue to eliminate jobs across the global economy, and deporting people, canceling trade pacts and eliminating government regulations isn’t likely to bring them back. But for a political candidate it often doesn’t matter. This message helped get Mr. Trump elected, and if the lot of his voters doesn’t improve in four years, there will be lots of other folks to blame.

As communications professionals, Mr. Trump’s successful election bid reminds us:

  • When speaking to large, diverse audiences, keep the message simple and based upon a key value proposition that resonates with the target audience
  • Colorful language, simple imagery and effective sound bites are far more effective than long, complicated explanations, even when they provide clarity of message and validating facts
  • Facts are not as important as messages that resonate with the feelings or beliefs of a target market
  • Tapping into strongly held beliefs is always a powerful strategy for moving target markets – whether or not those beliefs are based upon reality

In all communications programs — be they political or corporate — we must understand not just the characteristics and value propositions of the product we are promoting, but the feelings, concerns and beliefs of the market to which we are promoting that product.


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