Teaching The Trump Brand

Discussions of politics and religion in one’s workplace were once considered impolite. The events of the past year in the United States have made that perspective all but impossible to uphold. (Living in the U.S. election battle-ground state of Ohio has made this idea especially untenable). With kudos to Kathleen Stansberry, Ph.D., for her illuminating column, I wondered how other public relations professors are covering this election.

As public relations professors, we regularly include current events in class to encourage students to grapple with real-world issues. Granted, the 2016 U.S. Presidential election came with an unusually expansive set of issues. Nevertheless, I decided to tackle the 2016 Presidential election as I would any other challenging course concept: Through research, discussions with friends, and prayer.

I developed an in-class activity about the Trump brand before, during, and after the election. The activity began with a review of terminology—corporate reputation, image, and identity—and continued with an objective overview of the Trump brand. According to multiple media sources, the President-Elect has earned lots of money on real estate, many of his golf courses and hotels have been successful, and “The Apprentice” and spinoff television programs have done well. However, he has failed in other business ventures such as casinos, airlines, professional football, vodka, steaks, and business education. Some ventures have resulted in four business-related bankruptcies.

For the next stage of the activity, I posed the following question: Why was the $2 billion worth of free media Trump received during the election cycle beneficial for the campaign, yet seemingly detrimental for his businesses? Much of the class discussion focused on the measurable impact of the campaign on the brand. Foot traffic is down at Trump Casinos and Trump Golf Courses, and bookings are down at Trump Hotels. New hotels opening in 2017 will carry the new name “Scion” instead of Trump.

For the conclusion of the activity, I facilitated discussion about three stakeholder groups: brand consumers before the campaign, individuals who began supporting the candidate during the campaign, and people protesting against the election results.

I don’t pretend to know how to adequately address a value-laden topic like the 2016 U.S. Presidential election—especially since I’m still processing it myself. Case studies illustrations remain plentiful. (As of this column’s writing, a #boycottTrump app is available for Androids and I-Phones with a comprehensive listing of companies that do business with Trump). What I am sure of, though, is that covering this election in college classrooms should be considered a pedagogical imperative for public relations professors.

—Cheryl Ann Lambert, Ph.D.

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