Blog

Did Donald really trump Hillary in the PR war?

By . Posted 9 November 2016

Last modified on 19 March 2021 at 5:11 pm

Did Donald really trump Hillary in the PR war?

Donald Trump is getting the keys to the White House. But how did he get them? Was Trump’s campaign, as Lord Sugar’s former publicist, David Fraser, said in July “poetry in motion” or did Hillary Clinton drop the ball when it came to delivering her messages to the masses during one of the most hotly contested – and let’s be honest one of the most bruising – presidential campaigns in modern history?

Donald Trump

We should start with the man with the keys to the White House – and soon-to-be leader of the Free World. Like him or loathe him, you can’t argue that ‘The Donald’ has a proven ability to communicate with large numbers of people. You could call it style over substance, but Trump speaks in definites – “We will make America great again!” No ifs, buts or maybes. In the presidential debates he said Hillary Clinton was “the most corrupt person ever to seek the presidency.” Certainty is an attractive quality to many.

He also attacked Hillary Clinton for husband Bill’s famous infidelity, went after the media for what he thought was their biased approach and he tapped into feverish national feelings on issues of immigration and foreign policy.

Some intelligent people at the University of British Columbia analysed the speech styles and social media activity of Trump and the other nine people who were seeking the Republican nomination recently. They found that the reality star consistently ranked highest in ratings of grandiosity, “I”-statements, informal language, vocal pitch variation, and use of Twitter.

“Trump’s outrageous statements over the course of the campaign led many political pundits to underestimate his chances of success,” said supervising author Delroy L. Paulhus, a personality psychology researcher and professor at the university.

“Contrary to what might be expected, grandiosity, simplistic language and rampant Twitter activity were statistical predictors of success in the Republican primaries.” It seems that that has translated well into the presidential election too. If you’re interested, you can read more about that study here.

Another study in January found that while the reading level of speeches by Hillary Clinton was that of an 8th grade student, Mr Trump speaks at just a 4th grade level.

In an excellent analysis of the two candidates, Katharina Balazs, Associate Professor at ESCP Europe, and executive coach at the INSEAD Global Leadership Centre, wrote: “As far as Trump is concerned, it seems surprising how he can attract so many passionate and determined followers in spite of his confusing messages lacking logic and substance.

“What he does masterfully is to sense group emotions and connect with people’s frustrations and concerns. He provides hope, not facts which can make people blind to his behaviour as a reckless, modern-day Messiah.

“There is a lesson here for leaders of all ranks. Speaking only to people’s heads does not create the passionate commitment as touching their hearts does.” Read more on that one here.

Hillary Clinton

The New York Times called Hillary Clinton “one of the most broadly and deeply qualified presidential candidates in modern history.” That view was backed up by an informal survey by PR Week, which found that communications professionals overwhelmingly believed that Clinton would be elected. What do we know!?

Something has been lost in the message and, somehow, the former First Lady and former Secretary of State has lost out to a man with no experience in politics.

She’s faced criticism for losing control of the campaign narrative while Trump was talking about, among other things, stopping Muslims coming to the US, building walls with Mexico and his opponent’s email ‘scandal.’ In September, Phil Bump, writing in the Washington Post, said the election was slipping away from Hillary Clinton for that very reason.

Or does the answer actually lie in her communication style? Katharina Balazs said of Hillary Clinton: “Hillary is not Bill (Clinton), and immediate empathic connection is not her forte. Her weapons lie elsewhere. She has a reputation for having a sharp head and a cool heart. Facts and details pour out of her with ease, and are, characteristically for (a) “logically comprehensive communicator”, structured by order, logic and sequence.

“Her language is clear, and she connects the facts with the concrete, the “how-to”. The downside of her communication style is that she might remind people of the strict school teacher who knew it all and used to humiliate them in class.”

So she’s not averse to a concrete, certain, definitive statement, but does her delivery always get the juices of her supporters going? According to the BBC’s New York correspondent Nick Bryant, “her speeches are often flat and somewhat robotic. Her sound-bites sound like sound-bites – prefabricated and, to some ears, insincere.”

Ultimately, was this a big problem in the race for the White House? A good portion of the voting public in this country, as well as the US, will watch a debate or a speech and vote not on a rational, thought out view, but on a ‘feeling.’

Her strategy in the well-publicised debates involved using plenty of non-verbal communication, which was analysed by David B. Givens, director of the Center for Nonverbal Studies in Spokane, Washington, for The Daily Beast.

“Clinton calmly smiled and assuredly made her political points verbally clear,” he concluded. “Her body showed no reactivity to Mr Trump’s comments; she was totally (presidentially?) in control.”

So what happened?

Obviously a huge range of factors have come into play during this sometimes fraught and hard fought contest. Setting the communications strategy right early would have been a big deal for both candidates, but it would never the be all and end all.

Communications and in particular public relations has to be authentic and, as these results show, it has to be delivered with passion and it has to truly connect – not just be heard – by the audiences you’re aiming to actually get to do something.

Does it just come down simply to whether we talk to people’s heads or their hearts? That would assume that everyone who voted for Trump voted in a presidential election without engaging his or her brains. That’s an opinion held by many on this side of the pond if you believe social media, but that can’t be true, can it?

Was it the Mexico wall, was it the Clinton email scandal, was it Trump’s ability to cast himself successfully as the ultimate outsider against the ultimate insider or was Clinton’s “Stronger together” message just not quite as snappy as “Make America great again”? Maybe it was the Clinton campaign’s Mannequin Challenge….who knows?

Either way, Donald Trump is the 45th President of the United States.