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.

Small Business Saturday

Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving in the United States (U.S.), has long been recognized as the busiest shopping day of the year. Another day that has grown in popularity in recent years is Small Business Saturday.

American Express started Small Business Saturday in 2010 to encourage people to support small, local businesses. By 2011, the U.S. Senate resolved unanimous support for the day, prompting even the President to acknowledge his support. This year, participating business had access to extensive marketing resources.

Small businesses could create personalized, printable signage, digital banners, and email templates for Small Business Saturday. They also were able to download articles that aided in their promotional efforts. FedEx shipped Small Business Saturday merchandise kits free of charge to participating businesses, and even printed select materials to defray associated costs.

Unfortunately for the 28 million American small businesses, Small Businesses Saturday is not available to everyone. American Express limits participation to businesses located within the U.S. that have between 1-25 locations. Also, these businesses must meet American Express annual charge volume requirements. Additionally, businesses must accept American Express cards to participate.

Businesses that do participate must meet stringent guidelines. These businesses must qualify for placement on the Small Business online directory. Those that do qualify are eligible to be recommended in American Express marketing to card members. However, the recommendations occur through target marketing based on cardholder spending. Further, participating businesses have to apply for free online ads, and they might incur additional costs for printing marketing materials. A flattering case study about the day indicates that the financial services company has gained substantial awareness. The benefit of Small Business Saturday could be greater for American Express than the very companies it is intended to celebrate.

Small businesses have historically been hardest hit when big box retailers enter a new marketplace, yet these family-owned, and/or mom-and-pop shops are also the economic drivers for rebuilding once-thriving town squares. One would hope that businesses that either cannot be or choose not to be official participants in Small Business Saturday have some carryover foot traffic. It is unknown how much consumer business occurs outside the umbrella of designated retailers on Small Business Saturday.

Many an article has been written about the deluge of awareness days. (Cyber Monday and to a lesser extent, Giving Tuesday, are among those gaining popularity in the U.S.). But these drivers of the local economy are well past their due. Small businesses account for 54 percent of all U.S. sales.

It shouldn’t take an annual day to recognize the significance of small businesses to the U.S. marketplace.

–Cheryl Ann Lambert, Ph.D.

What Do We Do Now? The Candidate

The 1972 movie “The Candidate” follows the traditional fish out of water story: An ill-prepared candidate runs for office on a whim, insisting on maintaining his own identity while a long-time political consultant seeks to shape his image to be palatable to the media, establishment politicians, and eventually, the voting public. This column’s title is drawn from a pivotal scene between the California State Senate Candidate Bill McKay (portrayed by Robert Redford) and political election specialist Marvin Lucas (portrayed by the late Peter Boyle). Bill poses this loaded question to Marvin as a group of reporters vie for his attention.

The depiction of this political election specialist provides valuable insights about consultant-client interactions. Following are four lessons public relations professionals can learn from the film:

1) Acknowledge the chain of command.

Marvin Lucas holds immense power in the world of California politics. His connections provide the candidate access to the political arena. When Marvin begins making decisions without consulting the candidate, conflicts are the natural outcome. Public relations professionals must acknowledge the central role of the client in the chain of command. The level of expertise that a client, company, or brand has in a given industry should not determine the quality of counsel that public relations professionals provide.

2) Keep client requests at forefront.

Far too often in “The Candidate”, Marvin ignores the requests of the candidate. These requests involve community relations, media appearances, and endorsements. Even when Marvin states his intention to respect Bill’s wishes, he uses covert means to ensure that he—not the candidate—has the final word. Marvin only adjusts his interactions  after polls indicate a different tact is necessary. Environmental scanning is a critical means of tracking public opinion, but it should not supersede reasonable client demands.

3) Maintain a consistent message platform.

Marvin offers sporadic media training to the candidate, alternately supporting and undermining Bill’s policy suggestions. Marvin nearly succeeds in shaping both the content and the style of the candidate’s messages—much to the chagrin of the media. Public relations professionals should counsel their clients to maintain consistent messaging. They risk their credibility and that of their client’s if their messages are unpredictable.

4) Foster an authentic client image.

The film presents a wide gulf between the public perception and personal reality of the candidate. Thanks in large part to Marvin’s machinations, would-be voters never see the unpolished interactions the candidate has with community residents, nor do they learn about Bill’s estranged relationship with his politician father. An inauthentic client image was not sustainable during the 1970’s, and it is surely not sustainable in the 24-hour news cycle of today.

***

At first glance, “What do we do now” seems a natural enough question. After all, Marvin Lucas manages nearly every stage of Bill McKay’s campaign. A closer reading reveals that public relations professionals learn more from this character what to avoid than what to uphold. This film is a worthwhile reminder to all public relations professionals. We must consider the consequences of our actions for the multiple publics we serve.

—Cheryl Ann Lambert, Ph.D.

Across The Fences

“What if around the country, hundreds of sons and daughters, grandsons and granddaughters, mothers and fathers, mentors, friends and more and more shared the type of messages with loved ones that they’ve never shared before?” This is the question posed by a multi-platform public relations campaign to promote the movie “Fences,” based on the August Wilson Play. Entitled “Across the Fence: Telling our Story, and Building Strong Bonds,” this campaign is timed to coincide with the many family gatherings that take place during the United States (U.S.) holiday season.

Families across the U.S. are struggling right now to understand implications of the 2016 Presidential Election. Some are doing so in an abstract sense—reframing the American idealism to which they have grown accustomed. Others are doing so in a literal sense: Developing practical plans for possibly separating from loved ones should the President-Elect’s campaign plans come to pass. As families turn inward, I focus this week on familial ties within the context of public relations in popular culture.

The goal of “Across the Fence” is to build stronger bonds between families. Its strategy is to foster connections through face-to-face interviews that young people record with loved ones. Individual participants are expected to drive the tactical aspects of the campaign. For example, Across the Fence provides an online platform to showcase interviews, photographs, original artwork, and songs, that individuals share, and people are invited to use #AcrossTheFence to exchange family stories via social media.

“Fences” is directed by Denzel Washington, who also stars with Viola Davis. As a result of this Academy-Award Winning actor’s long-time  partnership with the Boys and Girls Club of America (a group that provides programs and services to promote and enhance the development of boys and girls with no adult care or supervision via safe spaces that instill a sense of competence and belonging)—it was natural that “Across the Fence” would team up with the Boys and Girls Club along with other organizations that promote family, faith, and fatherhood.

“Across the Fence” partners include Values Partnerships (which works with faith-based, ethnic, and other influencer groups for measurable results); the Campaign for Black Male Achievement (a network to ensure growth of those committed to improving the lives of Black men and boys), and the National Organization of Black Elected Legislative Women. Howard University, Morehouse College, and The American University comprise academic partnerships.

“Across the Fence” supplements traditional film media relations efforts, such as actors’ talk show appearances. While film-goers and fans are the primary audience for the movie, families are the focus of the publicity campaign. Both groups can benefit from the nostalgia of this time of year. “Across the Fence” provides a welcome distraction from the everyday reality most families in the States are living today.

—Cheryl Ann Lambert, Ph.D.

Political PR: Wag The Dog

“My fellow Americans, our long national nightmare is over.”

This quote from the late U.S. President Gerald Ford references the difficult months preceding his inauguration during which the late U.S. President Nixon resigned while in the process of being impeached. Although the U.S. political environment is vastly different in 2016 than it was in 1974, this quote captures what the American citizenry will surely feel on Election Day, 2016. Still, no quote can fully capture the extent to which the U.S. Presidential Election has dominated media coverage during the past 18 months.

According to The New York Times, the Trump campaign alone got $2 billion worth of free media. The article rightfully draws the distinction between earned and free media, contrasting the amount of money spent on ads versus the amount of media coverage the candidate received for free. Nevertheless, other reports have inaccurately equated media coverage with public relations expertise.

Public relations, as defined by the Public Relations Society of America, is “a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics.” Media mentions are a long way from building mutually beneficial relationships between candidates and their would-be voters. Unfortunately, fictional depictions of public relations could have you believing otherwise.

In the biting 1997 satire Wag the Dog, two White House public information officers (political public relations professionals) must manage fallout from a sexual assault allegation against the sitting President. Rather than face the scandal head-on, these public information officers hire a Hollywood producer for a wholly unorthodox crisis management campaign. Together, the team manufactures a fictional crisis to redirect media attention away from the allegation and toward the President’s leadership capabilities. The elaborate scheme includes key messages for internal and external publics. Remarkably, they salvage the President’s reputation by controlling the entirety of the media narrative.

Although Wag the Dog presents a wildly exaggerated take on the world of political public relations, it also reinforces the widely held belief that public relations professionals are more concerned with shaping public perception of a crisis than they are with managing the crisis itself. These public relations characters embody the spin doctor persona by employing deflection and deception. Worse, their ability to successfully sway reporter interest essentially legitimizes their approach.

In the real world, political public relations professionals cannot control the media narrative, nor can they compel behavior change. In the real world of political public relations, these press officers, press secretaries, and public information officers work to build relationships with multiple constituents long past Election Day.

Unlike their counterparts in Wag the Dog, political public relations professionals seek to motivate, not manipulate, the public.

—Cheryl Ann Lambert, Ph.D

Historical Identity: Jack Daniel’s

In honor of Halloween here in the United States (U.S.), I’m focusing this week on a gothic novel that features a public relations professional.

In The Resurrectionist: A Novel, Dr. Jacob Thacker is an interim public relations professional for the fictional South Carolina Medical College. A dual narrative juxtaposes Jacob’s efforts to overcome his personal demons with the college’s just-discovered connection to the U.S. slave trade.

Complete transparency is rarely an option in corporate public relations, but for Jacob, transparency becomes a personal proposition. His decision on whether to protect the college’s legacy or advocate for the local community is directly linked to his career prospects. Jacob grapples with the implications of information disclosure throughout the novel.

What could compel an organization to willfully disclose ties to this ugly chapter of American history? In the case of Jack Daniel’s, company representatives did so to correct the historical record. As part of its 150-year anniversary announcement this summer, Jack Daniel’s revealed that the original Jack Daniel learned about distilling from an enslaved man. By making this disclosure, the company turned a potential crisis into an opportunity for introspection.

Rightly or wrongly, people make value judgments about organizations (and individuals) based on past mistakes as well as current actions. Organizational publics include employees, suppliers, customers, interest groups, and at all times, the news media. In The Resurrectionist: A Novel,  Jacob Thacker eventually demonstrates his ability to negotiate the needs of multiple publics.

Readers looking for a positive representation of public relations could come away disappointed with this novel. Jacob holds little credibility at the outset because of personal struggles that have hindered his professional capabilities. What readers will find in The Resurrectionist: A Novel is compelling insights about historical identity versus public image from the perspective of a flawed individual seeking redemption.

—Cheryl Ann Lambert, Ph.D.

Campbell Soup Celebrates Superpowers

“With great power comes great responsibility.” I often use this well-known quote from Spider-Man to explain ethics in public relations. Public relations professionals hold an empowered position with the clients, companies, and brands they represent. In order to be successful, they must operate in a responsible manner, rising above erroneous assumptions that far too many people have about the profession.

I was reminded of this quote last week when Spider-Man made an unexpected appearance in the Campbell Soup Company “Celebrating real, real…superpowers” commercial to promote Spider-Man soup for kids. The commercial features a child in a Spider-Man costume jumping around the house. The child’s mother deftly ignores the antics right up until she calls the child for lunch. It is at the kitchen table that the child is unmasked as a little girl. The surprise ending serves multiple purposes, each pointing to Campbell’s as a forward-thinking corporation.

This commercial taps into current social interest in representations that adequately reflect the demographic shifts in U.S. culture. It also captures the ongoing popularity of superheroes. The commercial is part of the company’s multi-platform Real Real Life Campaign, and it seems to be an effort to transform the company’s nostalgic identity into something better suited to the social media age. Fortunately for Campbell Soup Company, this latest commercial has a built-in audience—and they applaud accurate representations.

Cheryl Ann Lambert, Ph.D.