Trump 2016: A Lesson in Public Persuasion

If you’re reading this post you have now realized that this is not a dream. No, quite the opposite; a misogynistic, xenophobic-inducing, non-experiential ‘gentleman’ has become the 45th president of the United States. Congrats to all my Republican peeps, and to my fellow Demo’s; well, we’ll just have to see the positive in this situation. Think PR; it helps. Biases aside, there is something to be said for the Trump campaign. Whether you like him and it or not; his campaign is a spectacular lesson in having a clear and concise communication strategy that leads to effective public persuasion.

Understanding the target audience


Photo: Albany Herald.

Many of my colleagues living throughout major U.S. markets were quicker than immediate in voicing their discontent and when looking at some election results maps by county you can see a pattern; Trump lost in major cities and won throughout the country’s rural areas. Often when selecting a target demographic we always gravitate to putting a city name on it. Unless you’re John Deere, typically we don’t think ‘Countryville’ as you have a higher concentration of citizens in metropolitan areas versus the sparsed populations throughout the countryside. However, if added up and empowered to take action, we have the debacle that transpired for Election 2016.


Photo: Albany Herald.

It occurred to me after seeing this data that Trump’s strategy was on point from the beginning. He was never out to win his hometown of Manhattan or the Chicago’s, LA’s and Seattle’s of the country. In fact in some of the red states he didn’t necessarily win the major cities but he did succeed in the hill country. One map released from The New York Times showed how in the state of Texas he lost in all of the major cities including Austin, Dallas, El Paso, Houston and San Antonio, but every single county surrounding these areas registered a high red-voter turnout. His strategy all along was to reach ‘middle America.’ Not middle as in class or in the states in between the East and West Coast, but middle as all of the people in between metro areas who don’t form part of a city community. It was a risky and ambitious project; turn the country upside down and reach rural America versus the workforce who drives the country’s biggest operations. Knowing who to go after brought up the next question of how to effectively go after them. This he quickly learned and did well.


Photo: Albany Herald.

Rural America is predominantly conservative in every aspect of social life, is a demographic that has little to no higher education, speaks with verbiage no longer than three syllables, possess limited resources and income and lives so isolated to city life that they’ve probably never been exposed to citizens of different cultures. Knowing all this data gave him the ingredients to weave his communication strategy. They’re afraid of the unknown; they don’t know much about foreign anything so it’s easy to radicalize this population with fear of the unknown. I could go more in depth about this, but the key takeaway here is that he knew his target audience. He understood their dialect and was able in turn to speak their language. Many of his campaign rallies were in barns, fields and rural areas. For many this meant the first time they were seeing a candidate in the flesh on their turf; this created an emotional connection for his target, which segues into the next major bullet to his strategy.

Repetition and emotion

Trump knew how to express emotion and make his audience feel it. He also knew the secret to this like any other campaign is to repeat until everyone remembers it. Again, I’m not going to dissect his bigotry-filled rants or speeches. We all know how he isolated basically every minority group and every major city. He didn’t care to do that because that was never his strategy to begin with. So many of us may wonder how could he have won with such nasty things he had to say about X, Y and Z. Let’s remember that we were not his target audience so he could care less if he upset us. I am speaking to everyone who reads this post because again, his target demo does not interact with technology.

Love is a powerful emotion as is hatred and fear. People can identify with all of them and feel a sense to react when stricken with any of the mentioned. Whether the emotion he evoked among his audience was ethical or not is for you to decide. I’d say no however in the paradoxal world we live in, it is fair game. Once he identified the emotion he wanted to connect with his audience it became a game of consistent repetition. He repeated his insults and main agenda items over and over to the point that Dem’s can list all of his bad policies and Reps can list all of the good ones they’re anticipating. There’s no ambiguity to who he is and what his campaign is about, which means his message was clearly understood and received.

Authenticity and being human

Lastly, Trump was so human that he was loathed by the lesser half and worshiped by his following. He was authentic, non-apologetic; he was true to his brand. Like any PR and marketing campaign, audiences like for their brand or persuader to be raw, real, relatable and a bit inspiring. He was all of the above for his audience. Rural America saw an ‘in-your-face’ candidate that did not hold back and spoke their mind; something they’ve never seen much less one who could speak their language. Trump was human to his audience and perceived as genuine.

Photo: Albany Herald.

Let’s go back two years. Trump was calling the shots on The Apprentice. He was a billionaire mogul jetting from world capital to capital while developing properties with his name. What could ‘middle America’ possibly have in common with him? If you said nothing you are correct. He had absolutely nothing in common with farmers.

During my time at Boston University I learned from the former press secretary to Sen. John Kerry; I’ll never forget Professor Larry Carpman. He taught me that the key to public persuasion is to have your target audience think differently about the product, service or brand you are trying to sell them. What did this campaign do? Exactly that. Trump has never scooped manure with his bare hands but yet his campaign had those who have, see him in a light where he was relatable and human enough to make them believe that he was their voice and that he understood their lifestyle and challenges. The campaign was effective in that it transformed public opinion from his key demographic; they now see him differently than prior to before any campaigning began.

In conclusion…


Photo: National Review.

The results are what they are and we must all come to terms with it in some way. Consider this analysis of his campaign as my coping mechanism. I wish the result was different and am pretty polar opposite to anything Trump thinks or said, much less do I condone any of his behaviors; quite the contraire, however I must acknowledge that I was not his target audience and knowing that lets me understand his campaign entirely. He had a clear strategy, knew his audience and carried out an effective communication plan. I will give him kudos on that because it shows the PR world how valuable the art of persuasion is. With some good PR you can do anything, even with a presidency; yes, even for Trump.

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