I thought that my writing about the PR crises of Donald Trump would cease and that he would keep a low profile for at least several months after he lost the election in November. But I was wrong. Then I definitely thought he would keep a low profile after his encouragement of the mob that stormed the Capitol on January 6. Again I was wrong.
Instead the ego-driven self-proclaimed “stable genius” decided to speak at the CPAC conference. His speech again revealed that Trump would flunk a course of PR 101 if it was given at his scam Trump University. The result of his speech was another PR crisis, proving that Trump is the PR crises gift that keeps on giving.
If in the future, historians categorize a list of political public relations crises that was made worse because of inept handling, several of President Donald J. Trump’s actions in 2020 certainly qualifies for being at the top of any list. In fact, an entire book could be devoted to the president’s amateurish PR 101 actions during the first six months of 2020. (It’s as if those advising Trump on public relations were drop-outs from Trump University.)
But even after he was defeated for reelection and fled to Florida the ineptness of his public relations skills became evident as his latest action again led to an unnecessary PR crisis — the revelation that he and his wife secretly received the coronavirus vaccine in January prior to leaving the White House. The news was kept secret until Trump urged people to get vaccinated when he spoke at the CPAC convention on February 28.
Publicly encouraging people to be vaccinated in January would have provided him with a modicum of favorable publicity. By keeping it secret for more than a month, as people continued to be infected by the virus and died, the result was another PR crisis disaster for Trump. His lack of alleged PR skills, that by now should be evident to everyone in our business, can occupy a wing of the Library of Congress.
There are too many Trump PR flubs to write about. Certainly more than I can remember. But below are several ones that I believe led to the defeat of Trump’s re-election bid.
Trump’s inept handling of his first crisis of 2020 (he had many others PR problems previously during his presidency) occurred on January 22, when he said, “We have it totally under control…It’s going to be just fine.”
Labeling the coronavirus a “hoax,” instead of immediately acknowledging it for what it is and taking immediate steps to contain it transformed a problem that he did not create into one he now owns, which was used against him in the lead-up to the November presidential election, as were the other examples in this article.
His second mistake was using military style action against peaceful protesters in order to clear a free path so he could stage a photo-op.
His third faulty PR attempt occurred on June 16, while the coronavirus continued its deadly march through the U.S., when the president had his justice department sue former national security adviser John Bolton, trying to stop publication of his former advisor’s memoir about his time in the White House.
His fourth error was his inept attempt to damage the reputation of Dr. Fauci.
Here ‘s why I consider these four actions among the worst handling of PR crises during the last few years; only the incompetent handling by Boeing and Wells-Fargo of their crises might challenge Trump for the public relations stupidity title.
The following are abridged reasons for my selections.
Trump’s coronavirus handling:
Trump’s original sin was denying that there was a coronavirus problem. But he exacerbated the situation by several of his actions:
- On February 28, he said that the deadly coronavirus was a Democrat hoax.
- His press conferences were too long and were judged by many as a platform for him to replace his rallies. Most important, he championed unproven scientific cures for the coronavirus.
- He contradicted his medical scientists.
- He cut short the remarks of his medical scientists when he didn’t like what they were saying, and
- He encouraged his followers to disobey safety rules set in place by governors of several states, still on-going, telling them to liberate your state.
Trump’s protest handling:
His original sin in this situation was not permitting peaceful protests near the White House.
- He exacerbated the situation by directing that the protesters be pushed back by use of force, including gas, rubber bullets and other means.
- He advocated the use of U.S. military forces to quell protests. That resulted in numerous three and four star generals and admirals to criticize the president for saying that the military should be used against protesters.
- He conducted a Sherman-like march to St. John’s Episcopal Church to stage a photo-op, and then to the John Paul II National Shrine for another photo op. In both instances he was criticized for using religion as a political tool by clergy of the church and shrine.
- Even during his June 17 speech, which was supposed to address police violence, he announced several times that he was a law and order president and that the silent majority supported him and that some people didn’t even know that they supported law and order.
Trump’s handling of John Bolton’s book.
Trump’s original sin in this matter was his bad mouthing of Bolton, which led many people to believe that the president was blocking publication of the book, not because it contained classified information, as he said, but because Bolton didn’t praise Trump like Vice President Pence, Attorney General Barr and the other presidential lackeys always did and still do.
- His attempt to stop publication of Bolton’s book, “The Room Where It Happened” demonstrated a lack of media smarts when the president was enmeshed in a situation that he could not control.
- His filing of a law suit after the books were already in stores and galleys were provided to book reviewers and political media was ill timed. The chance of the book’s contents not leaking, despite the lawsuit, was nil, and, of course, the leaks occurred and received major media coverage. Leaks from the book began even prior to the lawsuit. The president attacked the contents of the book, claiming it contained classified information that would compromise national security and that it was all lies, which raises the question, if it was all lies how could it damage national security? (After more than five years of listening to Trump denounce everyone and everything that he disagrees with by labeling them lies or fake news, it seems to me that the -president’s favorite readings might include the books and speeches of Adolph Hitler — on June 18 Facebook removed an ad from the Trump campaign targeting antifa and leftist groups because it included an inverted red triangle in a black outline, a symbol the Nazis used for political dissenters — Benito Mussolini, Chairman Mao, Joseph Stalin, Vladimir Lenin ,and Idi Amin. Missing from his reading list obviously was “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” by the Greek story teller Aesop.)
- By filing the lawsuit, it guaranteed that the sales of the book will be much greater than if Trump ignored it.
Trump’s attempt to damage Dr. Fauci’s reputation.
- An article in the New York Times on July 13 detailed statements that Dr. Fauci made about the coronavirus that the White House said showed he was wrong.
- One example cited by the White House was from a February 29 interview during which Dr. Fauci said, “at this moment there is no need to change anything you’re doing on a day-to-day basis.” The Times article, as did other media outlets, pointed out that was not Dr. Fauci’s full statement, which said, “Right now the risk is still low, but this could change.”
- Disseminating misleading statements should never be done. Once they are fact checked and found to be false, whatever else you release will be treated with skepticism by the media.
What does the above actions by the former president show?
- That he believes whatever he says and does will be accepted as the thinking of a “stable genius.”.”
- That he flunked PR Crises 101.
- That he is a hypocrite. By urging his followers to disobey shut down orders by governors of several states because of health concerns, Trump only believes in law and order when it helps him.
- That “Trump The Media Genius” is a myth created by tabloids and cable TV networks, which catered to Trump, not because of his PR savvy, but because it helped their ratings.
- That as his keeping it a secret for more than a month about receiving the coronavirus vaccine reveals, his gut feelings about public relations are wrong.
There’s an important lesson from the above that people should remember: When things go smoothly, everyone is a star. But it is how an individual reacts during a PR crisis that shows real expertise. And President Trump responses to his PR crises demonstrate a lack of PR savvy and the temperament of a bully.
About the Author: Arthur Solomon, a former journalist, was a senior VP/senior counselor at Burson-Marsteller, and was responsible for restructuring, managing and playing key roles in some of the most significant national and international sports and non-sports programs. He also traveled internationally as a media adviser to high-ranking government officials. He now is a frequent contributor to public relations publications, consults on public relations projects and is on the Seoul Peace Prize nominating committee. He can be reached at arthursolomon4pr (at) juno.com or email@example.com.