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Donald Trump’s communication codex: rebuttal, dead cats, diversion and hyperbole

Can you make sense of Donald Trump’s communication style? It appears to be a mix of direct rebuttal, dead cats, diversion and hyperbole. Organisations must stand up for what they believe in.

President Elect Donald Trump’s communication style appalls and fascinates public relations practitioners in equal measure.

He seemingly challenges everything that we have learnt in the past decade about modern forms of media and public engagement.

Nothing appears to dent his confidence: lack of transparency on tax; relationships with foreign governments; sex assault claims; and conflicts of interest.

Media used to be defined by news cycles. In 2017 it’s defined by the Trump cycle, so called for the President-Elect’s ability to dominate a media agenda, typically on his terms.

Direct rebuttal

Trump has two strategies in his communication play book. He kills arguments with a direct and aggressive rebuttal, or he starts a new scrap to divert attention from last one.

Meryl Streep’s criticism of Trump at the Oscars last week resulted in Trump calling her out on Twitter as over rated.

When congressman and human rights activist John Lewis said Trump was not a legitimate President because of alleged foreign government interference in the election, Trump tweeted that that Lewis was all talk and that he should focus on his constituents.

Dead cats and diversion

Trump uses Twitter as a tactical weapon, hitting out at opponents, and directly countering attacks.

Tweets are literal, short and direct. He uses capital letters, single words and repetition for effect. There can be no uncertainty in the content or context of a message, and he seldom entertains any further discussion.

It’s an approach is known as the dead cat, created by political strategist Lynton Crosby. His response to losing an argument was to throw an issue, known as a dead cat, on the table.

The appearance of a dead cat, albeit metaphorical, is shocking. It quickly shifts attention, forcing opponents to move on and focus on a new issue.

Hyperbole

Trump appears to believe what he says at a given point in time and has complete confidence in his own ability. He is seemingly devoid of the normal human filter of embarrassment or shame.

This isn’t public relations.

The US, like the UK post-Brexit, is divided. Political leaders in either country are doing little to bring about unity.

Yes, Trump uses social media for direct engagement and rebuttal but he has no interest in engaging with his detractors.

He refused to take questions from journalists from Buzzfeed and CNN at a press conference this week, calling them out as fake news.

The result can only be an escalation in this form of communication and further entrenchment.

Style and substance

Trump is a masterful personal communicator.

We woefully underestimate his ability to connect with publics, forgetting that he has decades of experience as the chief executive of an international organisation and as a reality television star.

How to respond to Trump

Writing on his blog Shel Holtz listed the direct responses from organisations which had been criticised by Trump. They are characterised by a combination of direct, swift and community action.

Individuals, media and organisations must stand up for what they believe in, and for each other.

Updated 19:46, 15 January 2017 with thanks to insight and comment from Andrew Grill, Sharon O’Dea, Sarah Hall, Alex Malouf and Ross Wigham.

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Stephen Waddington

Partner and Chief Engagement Officer, Ketchum and Visiting Professor in Practice, Newcastle University.

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