One of the Donald Trump stories in the news this week is his on-going war of words with Khizr and Ghazala Khan, a Gold Star family who spoke out against Trump at the Democratic National Convention. A common complaint by Trump supporters on social media is that the “mainstream media” is treating Trump unfairly. Supporters also believe that Kahn is a paid Hillary shill, or a Muslim Brotherhood agent, or a number of other things.
People tend to think of the media as some kind of uncontrollable boogeyman, but the reality is there are effective strategies for dealing with the media, especially more traditional media outlets, and that Trump either intentionally or inadvertently chose for this story to become a week long (or longer) story. When Trump was asked by George Stephanopoulos about the Kahn family after the Democratic National Convention, he had a couple of directions he could go. The traditional direction was to acknowledge the family’s loss and pivot to his own talking points. The other direction was to go on the offensive, which would increase the coverage of the story.
Trump may have gone on the offensive because it’s his brand or simply his nature, but it may have also been a strategic choice. His strategy during the primary elections consisted mostly of going on the offensive, and the benefit of this route is that he dominated the news cycle. In the primary, this worked essentially as free advertising. Because the news channels were constantly talking about him, Trump didn’t need to pay for ads to stay on the top of people’s minds. In my opinion, Trump trounced the competition because he was so effective at guiding the media, even if at times he seemed to narrowly skirt danger.
If Trump had chosen to pivot to his main message during his ABC interview about the Kahns, instead of going on the offensive, very few people in the United States would know or remember the Kahns’ name by now. It ultimately wouldn’t even matter if Khizr were a Muslim Brotherhood agent employed by the Clinton campaign because the news cycle would have moved on. The trade-off of pivoting, though, is that if the story dies, Trump loses that valuable time as the lead story in the news cycle.
Though you may be familiar with the saying “all publicity is good publicity,” few politicians would choose to prolong a negative story because it could blow up in very much the way this one did, but Trump’s previous experience made it a more difficult call. After all, he likely wouldn’t have stood out so strongly from the rest of the Republican field if he hadn’t been aggressive. Perhaps the aggressive track will pay off more times than not and ultimately be worth the cost, but in hindsight a pivot seems like it would have been a better choice this time.
How would a pivot look in this situation? You can actually see some great examples in many media outlets by some of Trump’s surrogates who don’t want to be drawn into the argument. It would go something like this:
Interviewer: What is your response to the speech by the Kahn family at the Democratic National Convention?
Trump: They, of course, have made a great sacrifice for the country, but ultimately this is about Islamic terrorism. We need to secure our borders, make sure Americans are safe, and take the fight to ISIS in the Middle East.
I’m not sure what his exact talking points would be, but this is basically how a pivot would work. The person being interviewed should acknowledge the question and move on to his or her talking points, rather than dwelling on the negative comments.
Interviewer: What about Kahn saying that you’ve made no sacrifices for this country?
Trump: I’ve donated my time and donated millions of dollars to veteran’s causes, but my sacrifice doesn’t compare to losing a son in battle. That’s why we need to defeat ISIS, etc.
The point is that Trump had a strategic choice to make. He wasn’t at the mercy of the media and, in fact, has had success at using the media for his advantage. Now that this particular story has gained momentum, it is difficult to stop, but the candidate had some control over the direction.
The public attributes so much media coverage to bias or being out to get people, but there are often simple, logical reasons for what the media does. As long as there are logical reasons, that coverage can be influenced by media relations strategies.
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