The 2016 election served as a wakeup call to pundits, pollsters and all other members of the established media. Both the operations and results of the president election proved how dramatically the standard devices used to communicate one’s message in a political context have changed.
Love him or hate him, Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpSenate advances public lands bill in late-night vote Warren, Democrats urge Trump to back down from veto threat over changing Confederate-named bases Esper orders ‘After Action Review’ of National Guard’s role in protests MORE was a master at generating earned media that saturated each and every news-cycle, allowing him to spread his message and helping him to win the White House while only spending a monetary fraction in advertising that other major competitors employed.
Trump generated an estimated $4.96 billion worth of free media, as opposed to Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonWhite House accuses Biden of pushing ‘conspiracy theories’ with Trump election claim Biden courts younger voters — who have been a weakness Trayvon Martin’s mother Sybrina Fulton qualifies to run for county commissioner in Florida MORE’s estimated $3.24 billion; even so, both candidates this election cycle earned far more free media than the two main presidential contenders four years earlier, with Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaHarris grapples with defund the police movement amid veep talk Five ways America would take a hard left under Joe Biden Valerie Jarrett: ‘Democracy depends upon having law enforcement’ MORE earning an estimated $1.15 billion and Mitt Romney an estimated $0.7 billion.
Due to Trump’s free media, he did not need to spend as much as Clinton on traditional paid advertisements; Trump spent approximately half of what Clinton spent.
But spending less money was only a part of the genius behind the Trump campaign’s focus on alternate soapboxes, such as social media.
Trump and son-in-law Jared Kushner, who Forbes called the mastermind behind Trump’s campaign, recognized the public’s waning faith in traditional news outlets and capitalized on it by eschewing those sources and highlighting their deficiencies.
If the press would cover me accurately & honorably, I would have far less reason to “tweet.” Sadly, I don’t know if that will ever happen!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 5, 2016
I think we all know and agree — regardless of political leaning — that our newspapers and news stations failed this election season. Too much attention was given to trivial things, such as bombastic statements from Trump, and not enough attention was given to policy issues, such as specific considerations for dealing with ISIS.
Too much time was spent entertaining the public on silly talk shows and “Saturday Night Live” as opposed to educating it through informed and in-depth interviews with all presidential contenders.
Even if one throws out the distortions and lies that both political parties claim were perpetrated by traditional media, we can still point to the media’s incorrect analysis of the sway Trump held over approximately half of our country’s voters.
Traditional media refused to believe that Trump could come out on top and lost touch with the everyday voters of America who supported him. Columbia Journalism Review’s editor-in-chief and publisher, Kyle Pope, called this failing journalism’s “anti-Watergate” in the week following Trump’s election win in a frank look at the fourth estate.
So it turns out that a national press corps made up largely of comfortable, coastal people entirely misread what was going on in the country
— Kyle Pope (@kylepope) November 9, 2016
“Its inability to understand Donald Trump’s rise over the last year, ending in his victory Tuesday night, clearly stand(s) among journalism’s great failures,” Pope wrote, adding that:
“The views of Trump’s followers — which is to say, the people who just elected our next president — were dismissed entirely by an established media whose worldview is so different, and so counter, to theirs that it became chic to belittle them and wave them off.”
To reach the people that traditional media ignored, Trump capitalized on social media. Trump played the game in an innovative and ultimately winning way.
As a reality television star, Trump had for years been mired in the earned media game from an entertainment standpoint, a perspective he carried through to his election.
And rather than approach the election as a political strategist, Trump approached it as a businessman; while many businesses have jumped on the social media bandwagon to their advantage, many traditional news outlets have myopically discounted it and stubbornly stuck to the old and ineffective ways.
In his mostly behind-the-scenes role, Kushner forged agreements with media outlets considered less mainstream, choosing to cut deals with Sinclair as opposed to CNN.
ICYMI – Kushner bragged to a group of biz execs that Trump camp struck deal w/ Sinclair https://t.co/pQqUO5FeY2
— Hadas Gold (@Hadas_Gold) December 19, 2016
In the deal, Sinclair would broadcast exclusive interviews with Donald Trump without commentary. Using expert analysis, Kushner determined that Sinclair catered to the population that the campaign was targeting and already had a more conservative bent, which allowed the campaign not only to shun CNN but to ridicule it openly as well.
According to Kushner himself, as reported by Politico, in swing state Ohio — which strongly supported Trump in the election — Sinclair reaches approximately 250,000 residents, while CNN reaches only 30,000.
And, while choosing the correct media outlets with which to parley, the Trump campaign forewent media outlets entirely in some instances.
Not only did Trump consistently take to Twitter — a move that traditional outlets projected would hurt him, yet does not seem to have done so — but the campaign disseminated controlled content directly to the public through social media.
The campaign released video after video of Trump sitting at a desk, speaking directly to the public with messages uninterrupted by reporters and unfiltered by editors.
Where Trump felt the media wasn’t giving him a fair shake, he turned to his Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts — between which he has amassed 25 million followers collectively — to bypass the media, a distorting middleman.
But why was Trump able to do this while Clinton was not?
From a purely PR standpoint, it has to do with how each candidate portrayed themselves from the beginning. Clinton presented herself as the voice of reason who would never take to Twitter to denounce a detractor; Trump presented himself as the rogue knight who was coming in with unorthodox methods to save the country from the traditionalist politicians who were not getting the job done.
The old-school campaign playbook is out and has been replaced by one in which direct communication is king. Trump’s campaign, which valued and understood changing media, won, while Clinton’s campaign, which took the dogmatic path of adhering to outdated communication norms, lost.
For us in the PR industry, 2016 illustrated what we had already learned through our work on the ground: The value of earned media far outweighs that of paid media and advertising.
Josh Nass is a public relations executive based in NYC, specializing in crisis communications and reputation management.
The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.
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