Donald Trump has public relations advisers on tap, but from the outside I’m guessing they must be feeling somewhat out in the cold as he ignores their strategic advice for his speeches, interviews and tweets as he aims for the White House.
And yet, by all current measures that matter, Trump is getting his message across and is exceeding all expectations. Perhaps his PR team are just happy to go along for the ride – after all, working on a team that outperforms expectations by this margin usually looks good on a CV, and is the basis for winning future lucrative work. But as experienced professionals, I think they’ll be wincing when he comes out with such lines as, ‘Donald J Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States,’ or, referring to tortured ex-PoW and Vietnam veteran Senator John McCain, ‘He’s not a war hero. He’s a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.’
Some of that discomfort will occur because PRs are professionals, and the professional classes, even the right wing Conservative bits, simply don’t comport themselves thus, and mostly don’t spend their time around people who do. But they’ll also be reflexively panicked because a good PR helps their client think several moves ahead. Even obscure, ancient quotes in this political and media age are dredged up to be used against candidates – and these quotes are recent and well known.
Trump may not have many Muslims or Hispanics (another target of his dissatisfaction) in his rallies right now, but come polling day, their vote counts. Republican party bosses can see that and are worried – the Hispanic vote in particular is large in some electorally-key US states (Florida ring any bells?). But for now Trump is, in fact, doing lots of things right.
The Republican line-up for the party’s nomination is still a crowded field, and he is doing what no other candidate has managed – he is standing out, and using outlandish views (and a coincidentally outlandish appearance) to achieve it. Meanwhile other candidates are matching the caution of their PR advisers. Can I suggest that while those advisers are thinking four, five and six moves ahead very well, they are failing to come up with moves one, two or three. And if they and their candidates don’t recognise this stage as being different, then of course there will be no opportunity to complete those perfect later moves.
Some of what Trump needs is beyond his control. He benefits from the crowded field, and in fact needs as many of them as possible to stay in the race for the nomination for as long as possible. Each of his opponents has the effect of watering down the impact of the others. But what he can control is when he starts listening to more conventional advice – and he will need to.
Trump has great core support, but the worry for his team will be that it is hard to add to it. For example, which withdrawing candidate would urge their supporters to translate their support to Trump?
If, and it is a big if, Trump decides to sound more statesman-like – to broaden his appeal by, with a knowing wink, implying that those early crass comments served their purpose and that he really isn’t that nuts – then he has one great advantage. And that’s the fact that Trump suddenly sounding a bit more moderate and a little more sane will in itself be a big news story – a talking point that attracts acres of coverage of the type a rival will struggle to secure.
That’s what could happen – personally I hope he heeds not a word of this sort of advice. But as people in Labour’s parliamentary party continue to puzzle endlessly how another fairly unspun person, Jeremy Corbyn, became party leader, all this is at least interesting and of interest.