(originally drafted 7/19/16)
As I watched the furor over Melania Trump’s plagiarized speech Tuesday, I found myself pondering how I’d respond as a communication professional, were I employed by the Trump campaign.
It’s a complicated scenario to imagine because there’s a thoughtful crisis communication-oriented response, and there’s an opportunistic publicity-oriented response. Both responses serve a valuable communication purpose pending context, but I feel they often offer diverging paths for a communication practitioner to follow, and I’ll argue below that one response may be considered less ethical in this situation.
This path recognizes that allegations of plagiarism represent a serious threat to the integrity of the accused, and the ensuing strategy seeks to minimize reputational damage and restore trust. A proper response may be to issue a statement acknowledging the misstep and earnestly suggest that the internal communication team is examining the process that may have enabled such a gross error. It would acknowledge the wrongdoing and graciously applaud Michelle Obama’s thoughtful, shared vision of family and work ethic. The media attention may continue to be harsh for awhile, and additional steps may be required, but the act would also maintain the presumed credibility of the Trump campaign.
While this may be the tactic to restore trust with the media, and other intellectual stakeholders, it’s apparent that Trump’s most important stakeholders are the people that will vote for him. His communication team must also recognize that these stakeholders will perceive plagiarism as a lesser offense than capitulating to a mistake, and may punish any attempt to mention an Obama in a positive light.
It’s also possible that Trump’s communication team perceived this misstep as another opportunity to generate free publicity from the media. We know this is one of Trump’s go-to communication strategies because a story from The New York Times earlier this year highlighted how he was able to outpace his competitors by generating over $2 billion worth of free media coverage during his party’s presidential primary.
The statement contradicts an interview where Melania told Today host Matt Lauer that she wrote most of the speech herself. Does this indiscretion even register among Trump’s key supporters? Probably not. The statement also does nothing to address Melania’s serious ethical failing – so it doesn’t represent a crisis communication response. It does manifest many more questions, representing a publicity-oriented response – and the media was busy. In a bizarre Orwellian twist, the Trump campaign chairman stated that the calls of plagiarism are the fault of Hillary Clinton. Chris Christie chimed in to point out 93% of the speech WASN’T plagiarized. Most everyone in the country sighed with exasperation from the absurdity of it all.
Is the campaign’s communication strategy ethical?
After observing the Trump campaign for nearly a year, it’s become apparent that negative media coverage does nothing to damage the Trump brand among its ardent supporters, and if anything, serves a purpose – to keep the media regurgitating the Trump brand name and messaging.
The initial publicity-focused communication response from the Trump campaign team represents either an unethical or an irresponsible tactic from the perspective of this communication professional. In my view, their campaign actively prioritizes controversy to generate more news coverage, versus prioritizing the act of telling the truth or offering anything of substance. This strategy has clearly created a dangerous and hyperbolic precedent. History has demonstrated that using crazy language and manipulating the media in such a manner leads to extreme consequences as time wears on. Americans should make themselves familiar with the notion that these campaign communications are strategically manipulative, versus dismissing the outrageousness of it all at face value.
My instinct is to consider the accusation of plagiarism as a crisis communication threat and to address it accordingly. However, Trump’s reinforced brand image is that of hyperbole, puffery and gross exaggeration. Therefore, this misstep doesn’t threaten his brand at all, and if anything, is a shot in the arm to his publicity efforts.
* * *
Earlier Wednesday Trump’s team released a statement throwing his official biographer under the bus, and to my surprise, praising Michelle Obama in the process. Rather than the initial publicity-generating statement from Tuesday, Wednesday’s communication represents a crisis-communication response. Essentially versus choosing one of two paths, as I suggest, team Trump chose both. This may be part of their strategy, or it may suggest that they don’t have an effective communication plan for their campaign and were trying to patch over earlier mistakes.