Tag Archives: donald trump

Alternatives to alternative facts

If you’re interested in the media then you’ll have read by now about the absurd claim by the new administration in the White House that Donald Trump’s inauguration had more people attending than any other in history. Worse, you will have heard his counselor Kellyanne Conway claiming that this was just an “alternative fact“.

As an aside, the really chilling thing is her statement at the beginning of the piece, in which she says the White House may have to re-evaluate its relationship with the press if the press continues to be hostile. This is directly counter to freedom of speech.

Back to “alternative facts” though. It’s the worst sort of lie, because it makes the speaker sound as though they’re wriggling, as if they’re defensive and incompetent.

Oh, and in my media training sessions we’d have focused on what someone might have been able to say without actually lying.

Alternatives to alternative facts

The initial comments, from press secretary Sean Spicer, were about reportage that the crowds for Trump’s inauguration were smaller than those for Obama’s first term. Let’s assume, for a moment, that there had been some miscalculation – maybe a rush just after the picture of the sparse Trump crowds had been taken (unlikely but not impossible).

The likelihood is that Spicer, even with evidence, would not have won against the press. So he could have taken an alternative tack. Something like:

“Yes, the first African American president was always going to be a crowd puller. That wasn’t about Obama, it was about a moment in time.”

You might disagree. I might disagree. We can see a line of reasoning nonetheless.

Or he could have played down the significance of the sheer number of people:

“Crowd numbers are less important than what the president does for those people in the crowd in the next four years. We believe a lot went wrong in the Democrat years and the next four or eight years is going to be about fixing it.”

Again, you might or might not think that’s fair enough. You couldn’t call it an actual lie, though.

Think of the reaction

The overriding likelihood is that the numbers were indeed down on Obama’s inauguration. However, even when you’re right, you have to think of the impact in public. Lecturing the press with venom in your voice isn’t going to play well, and sending the counselor onto NBC to criticise further and threaten people with diminished contact is crazy. First, you look petulant rather than professional, and second, if you’re only going to tell whopping great “alternative facts” when you do appear, who cares if they can’t talk to you?

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Donald Trump and journalist ethics

I had a weird media training session yesterday. Not that the people involved were weird, they were perfectly normal and pleasant. The weird thing was that part of my brief is to tell people how the press works (you won’t find that a surprise).

And part of this is ethics, including the bit that says you don’t run a story unless you have two independent and reliable sources corroborating it. That’s fundamental to the way I’ve always operated.

Yesterday, however, was different. Yesterday things had changed. Because Donald Trump.

Buzzfeed and ethics

To put it another way: Buzzfeed had published a complete dossier on Donald Trump, who is – whatever you think of him – president elect of the USA. It contained sexual and financial allegations that I’m not going to repeat.

And the reason I’m not going to repeat them is that they are, by Buzzfeed’s admission, completely unverified. It even added that they may be unverifiable. Ever.

The idea, the organisation said, was to allow Americans (as if it hadn’t known the story would go worldwide) to make up their own minds.

So let’s get this straight: someone has written a dossier on a public figure, they’ve sent it in or it’s been leaked to a publisher and that publisher, instead of putting it through any scrutiny, has put it into the public domain without a shred of evidence other than the document itself. The idea that people will make up their minds based on an impartial assessment is difficult to take; my own belief is that they will believe whatever reinforces their original opinion of the man (that’s an instinct rather than something for which I have any research).

What next?

I could write a dossier now. It could say Theresa May shouldn’t be leader of the Conservative Party because she is secretly married to Jeremy Corbyn. It’s rubbish of course, but would Buzzfeed publish it?

Suppose it did. Very few people would believe it and if they were asked, of course both parties would rubbish the reports. Can you be sure, though, that there would be no wagging tongues – nobody at all would turn around and say there’s no smoke without fire, something must be going on, or other cliches – not because the idea is credible but because it suggests politicians are “up to something”?

I have no idea whether or not Donald Trump did any of those things in the unsubstantiated dossier. I can’t stand the man or what he stands for and I wish he would go away (file under “not going to happen”). I get that he has used fake news often enough himself, claiming Obama founded Isis (a ridiculous and outright lie) and that the same president was born in Kenya.

But journalists are supposed to be more diligent. Nobody deserves to have unsubstantiated muck thrown at them so people can make up their own minds. Wednesday and yesterday were bad days for Donald Trump; they weren’t that great for journalism either.

 

What’s changed in communications for 2017?

Communications is something on which I coach people – and it may have changed irrevocably during 2016. Let’s look at the evidence.

The standard media training mantra is that you should bridge into your topic, away from others that cause controversy, and make your message known. You don’t criticise the competition, you tread carefully and ensure you’re seen as reasonable. You need good relations with the press.

So far, so sensible. Now let’s examine a few key players in 2016.

Communications get Trumped

We might as well start with the big beast. President-elect Donald Trump has been anything but reasonable. He has not only criticised his opponents, he’s positively libelled them. I would never have advised someone to call Hillary Clinton “crooked Hillary” or threaten to lock her up, getting crowds to chant along with the suggestion.

That’s what he did, though. And he insulted Mexicans, suggesting they should pay to construct a wall to constrict their own movements, and also he had a go at Muslims, including the family of a fallen soldier.

And he won. I’ve suggested before that what he was doing was offering a story; the comments on that page will tell you all you need to know about whether everyone agreed with me. I stand by my assertion, we’ll come back to it in a second.

Communications and fake news

One of the things that affected the Trump result was the impact of fake news. This is deliberately faked news, like reports that Clinton was in charge of a paedophile ring or something, rather than honest mistakes.

It all added up to an echo chamber in which a change was needed and the agent of change literally couldn’t be the wife of another president.

Fake news and facts also played a part in another major event last year.

Brexit: where’s our £350m a week?

On 23 June last year, Britain voted to leave the European Union. One of the factors in the decision was the deliberate falsehood, that we would save £350m a week and could put it into the National Health Service.

That’s been debunked so often – by the Brexit campaign informally immediately they won and officially in September – that it’s not worth repeating, except to note the sneaky lie the Remainers have brought in on the back of it. See my sub-headline above? “Where’s our £350m a week”, I ask, and many people have said the same thing.

OK, here’s the news: Britain has not yet activated Article 50. It has therefore not started the formal process of leaving the EU. Before the Brexiters had abandoned their pledge, it was dishonest to start calling them out on its non-appearance; even the handful who still believe in it can’t be expected to produce money saved by leaving something before we’ve actually departed.

Both sides of the debate appeared to leave the truth pretty much at the door. Instead, they resorted to “mood music”, as I think of it. There’s a book called “Inbound Marketing” and a great deal of work on the subject besides. The idea is that you create a lot of content so that your client, or voter in the case of the politicians, feels comfortable in your environment. The fact that the rants of Trump and the claims and counterclaims in the Brexit debate don’t adhere to any reality matters less than the tone being right for the supporters.

It’s this sort of tone-setting that I’d identify as the new storytelling. Trump may be an incoherent story teller (I say “may be”…) as people pointed out when I highlighted this as one of his selling points. But he had a compelling tone. This is something businesspeople can learn from.

Which is where I bring in the third piece of evidence to suggest that communications is changing, but maybe not as comprehensively as the previous examples might have indicated.

Communications and Jeremy Corbyn

The leader of the opposition in the UK should never have won the leadership election, never mind winning it twice, according to the old rules. He’s polite but he’ll also snub the press when he’s in that sort of mood – there are many clips like this one, and of course Have I Got News For You has made great fun of his knack of hiding from the cameras, sometimes behind a glass door.

Only…he did win, twice. You can’t get away from it. He is criticised – his supporters say vilified – by the mainstream media (they call it the MSM) – but he’s a serial winner of elections to become party leader. Remember the prime minister hasn’t even faced one such election. Again, his mood music has been about the ordinary person being left behind by large concerns, including the government and including his own party. And if this involves pretending to be on a crowded train when there were plenty of seats, so be it. The message worked and continued the mood for his chosen constituency. On the face of his leadership elections results he’s a resounding success.

So have things changed?

I’m currently working out how to accommodate these factors into my media training offering for 2017. There’s no doubt things have changed and the old rules need refreshing if not complete scrapping.

However, I don’t think all of the changes are permanent. To demonstrate this I point to a couple of incidents over the last couple of days.

Today the Fabian Society said Labour would not be able to win a general election in its own right in 2020. They’re a founding body of the party so they have no reason to be particularly anti. This may be a sign that the mood music isn’t quite enough to change everything in the way that some people believe.

You can argue that they’re known “moderates” or “Blairites” depending on your point of view. OK, but Len McLuskey, seeking re-election as head of the Unite union, has said Corbyn may have to step down if the party still looks unelectable at the beginning of 2019. That’s an uncontentious statement of the obvious at first glance but you have to consider who’s saying it; McLuskey has been a major Corbyn supporter so far. Obviously he’s going to try reaching out to non-supporters during his own re-election campaign but for such a major backer to express doubts (and McLuskey is a seasoned media player) is potentially serious.

So the mood music effect may be slipping, it’s too early to tell. Things have changed, though; I’ll be advising clients this year to set the mood as well as to put set-piece sound bites together, and will continue to advise consistency of communications across all platforms, much as I always have. Meanwhile later this week I’ll consider the importance of the press itself – is it diminishing in the eyes of the readers and viewers?

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