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Communicating In The New Washington

Two months after his stunning electoral victory and as he gets sworn in today as the 45th President, it is becoming clear how, when and why President-elect Trump will use communications to drive his agenda.

While there is no modern historical analogy to a Trump presidency and we are in largely uncharted waters, there are some early rules of the road to keep in mind when communicating in Trump’s Washington:

No norms is the new normal. The traditional norms of communicating in Washington revolved around promoting policy with disciplined messages through elite media outlets aimed at policymakers and influencers. When that wasn’t enough, presidents would go directly to the American people to make their case. Even then the messages were well-crafted and tightly controlled with appropriate stagecraft to bring them to life.

From FDR’s Fireside Chats during the Depression to George W. Bush’s reliance on talk radio and FOX News to Barack Obama and social media, presidents have constantly searched for effective ways to generate support through communications.

Those norms no longer exist. The Fireside Chat has been replaced by the 3:30 a.m. tweet. The stagecraft Reagan used so brilliantly to wrap his policies in the American flag have been replaced by casting calls and media scrums at ornate Trump Tower in mid-town Manhattan. A backdrop seemingly completely out-of-touch with his most ardent supporters.

No quarter given, no quarter taken. The political apology has become a finely honed and now time-honored ritual. When a high-ranking government official is caught embellishing or in a candid “hot mic” episode, the response is to issue the standard apology, put what you did or said in context and then seek to move on or resign to avoid becoming “a distraction.”

Not anymore. Through the many controversies of his campaign, Trump never apologized and in fact aggressively either dismissed or defended his or his aides’ behavior. And he won. As a result, expect to see this same dynamic play out across the new Administration.

It’s all personal. Donald Trump built his business by building his personal brand. In fact, much of his business’ revenue is apparently derived from licensing the Trump brand. As a result, any threat (perceived or real) to that brand will be swiftly addressed and in a remarkably personal way.

Policy toward Russia will likely be driven by the fact that Vladimir Putin is “a smart guy.” Under now bygone norms, Russian policy would have been about “integrating Russia into the world order to unleash the great potential of her people.” How quaint. The Senate Minority Leader might have been “the Chief Obstructionist” in days gone by. Now he is the “Head Clown.”

So when there are no “norms” how should brands communicate their agendas in Washington? Here are five recommendations to help navigate the uncharted waters of the New Washington:

Tell your story before it’s tweeted for you. A company or industry that builds its reputation within the Beltway echo chamber will have a much better chance of avoiding the early morning tweet storm from the new President.

Brands would do well to educate the new Administration and Congress, as well as key influencers such as media, think tanks and analysts about their importance to the US economy and societal fabric. Even interests well-established in DC need to take this on. Carrier, Boeing and GM are all well-known inside-the-Beltway but still came under fire from the President-elect.

Prepare for the tweet in any event and manage it. Unpredictability is the order of the day in the New Washington and even a well-understood brand with a strong reputation may become a Twitter target. Be prepared. Explain the reality in a measured response and engage to bring the volume down.

Don’t get distracted. The genius of Trump’s communications is his uncanny ability to change the narrative of the day – sometimes for weeks. With a seemingly random tweet or a call lobbed into Sean Hannity, Trump skillfully changes the narrative from something potentially damaging to something relatively trivial.

The Trump Administration will almost certainly continue to employ this strategy once in office. Don’t allow the distraction to derail advocacy efforts. Stay focused on achieving the ultimate policy objective by managing the distraction and working simultaneously on the advocacy efforts.

Align your agenda with The Trump Administration’s by focusing on US jobs, but be true to your brand. Toyota and Amazon in recent days have quickly moved to announce new jobs in the US – trying to very publicly mend fences with the incoming Administration. This is smart politics that supports their business objectives and is consistent with their brand positioning.

Be ready for the unpredictable and what used to be the unimaginable. The best scenario planning may still not be enough to prepare for the roller coaster ride that is the New Washington. Establishing sophisticated monitoring and rapid response systems will be essential to countering the unexpected and the unexpectable. Building relationships with those who understand the President and his new Administration and who have influence will also be a critical to successfully navigating these uncharted waters.

Every new President promises to bring change to Washington and to change the way Washington works. The promise is almost as old as the Republic. There are some who have succeeded and others who have fallen short. One thing about President-elect Trump is certain – he has already succeeded in changing the way Washington communicates. Whether he changes Washington beyond that remains to be seen.

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