Trump: Accomplished Ringmaster of the Communication Circus

Donald Trump can provoke and command attention, but his brand of communication may not work for everyone.

Donald Trump can provoke and command attention, but his brand of communication may not work for everyone.

Donald Trump has turned the presidential race, political correctness and polite discourse on their head. So, is he exemplifying the traits of a good or bad communicator? That probably is a matter influenced by your political persuasion, but a fair analysis suggests he has both good and bad communication traits.

In what one voter called the “post-pragmatic” period in American history, Trump offers passion over policy. He insults instead of ingratiates. He emotes rather than explains.

The Donald’s mix of provocative statements, nonstop tweets and 24/7 media availability has managed to smother the campaign fires of his opponents. He calls a Fox News analyst a bimbo and gets more coverage than a candidate who unveils a 10-point plan on a vital issue.

Critics say Trump is playing on fears, inflaming biases and inciting anger. Supporters say he is merely channeling pent-up political reaction to government rigor mortis.

Regardless of whether Trump continues to fly high in the GOP presidential sweepstakes, there are some lessons to learn from how he campaigns. Writing for ragan.com, Clare Lane lists some of Trump's best takeaways:

•  He has a core message that he repeats over and over.

•  He taps into the emotional “truth” of his audience.

•  He speaks in language his audience understands.

•  He knows how to reframe questions and issues.

•  He is intentionally different than his opponents.

Trump tells big crowds at his rallies that he is running for president to “make America great again.” He has turned a tagline into a mantra, a phrase into a brand.

Perhaps ironically as a billionaire, Trump empathizes with people who feel downtrodden. He knows their hot buttons and he isn’t hesitant to push them.

It’s no accident that Trump has made racist and sexist remarks and dismissed political correctness as a liberal conspiracy. They are calculated comments to connect with deep-seated feelings and fears in the voters he seeks to attract.

Trump is a master at turning around questions. He pivots to make his points, without worrying whether he answers a question. Even when pressed, Trump shifts the topic.

From his cartoonish hair to his braggadocio behavior to his testy tweets, Trump is unparalleled. There is no one like him. In a field of dozens, being so distinctive has made him the center of attention, which he maintains by consistently “surprising” everyone. He even got a full news cycle’s worth of coverage for staying overnight once in Iowa instead of flying back to his New York penthouse.

If those are his good traits, what are his bad ones? It is pretty much the same list.

Trump barks his key message because he doesn’t have – or doesn’t want to share – many details of what he would do if elected president. Yes, we know he would tear up some executive orders, but how would he build that huge wall between the United States and Mexico, how would he deal with Chinese leaders, how would he increase the wages of average Americans? And what exactly about America’s past does he view as so great to warrant its revival?

Trump is long on passion, but short on persuasion. Sooner or later, when emotions cool, you want some real answers.

Speaking the language of those you seek to reach is critical, but not all-encompassing. Sometimes leadership requires speaking above the crowd, raising its sights. You can summon the “better angels” of ourselves with familiar phrases used in powerful ways.

People who conduct media training teach how to bridge from awkward questions back to key messages. Sometimes, however, the most provocative thing to do is actually answer that awkward question.

Being different is a good thing, but it isn’t the only thing. Building trust, showing emotional intelligence and displaying grace under pressure count, too.

There should be no argument that Trump is an accomplished ringmaster in the communication circus. What may seem like indulgence may, in fact, be a disciplined, if highly irregular, approach to gaining and retaining notice.

Consider Trump’s decision not to participate in the final GOP presidential debate before next week’s Iowa caucuses. Was it really meant to snub Megyn Kelly because of her questioning in an earlier debate? Or was it a shrewd maneuver to thwart the plans of his Republican rivals to gang up on him during the debate?

Like him or not, Trump is a study in how to communicate. Some good, some not so good. He definitely is not a loser, though, even if you view him as a lousy candidate.

Gary Conkling is president and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at  garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at@GaryConkling