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Trump, Dickson and the Dark Side of Crisis Comms – By Gerry McCusker

Whether you’ve just been outed saying; “Just grab ‘em by the pu$$y” or “Little t!t$, nothing there…” (and much more) and the clip gets syndicated coverage by multiple media outlets globally, you’re likely to have a PR disaster on your hands.

Aside from whether such outbursts should instantly end your career prospects, the default ‘next move’ is to hatch and despatch a glib, lip service apology for any offence given. Our consultancy challenges the person/entity to meaningfully embrace wrongdoing with a commitment to redress and behave better (but, hey, neither ‘The Don’ nor ‘The Dick’ are not our clients).

In one of Australia’s freshest political PR disasters, strip-club revelations about Steve Dickson (One Nation’s Queensland leader) were so unsavoury, that resignation was inevitable for behaviour that could only ever end in political suicide.

Why? Aside from the sleazy revelations, the lame PR apology sought to wiggle-away and excuse; looked inauthentic; echoed past revelations about underhand gun lobbying and reeked of a selfish inability to consider the widespread hurt the behaviour could cause to other parties.

The 3 R’s of Crises

Now back to the nature of a PR disaster apology; what should it cover; how should it be delivered?

Well, academics and scholars of PR (myself included) overwhelmingly believe – based on chin-deep piles of research papers – that authentic and genuine expressions of remorse, responsibility plus remedial behaviour are required to address the wrongdoing and offence.

However, a new study suggests that kind of ‘3R’ wisdom is based on a, too old, media paradigm.

In fact, researchers from the Singapore Management University have uncovered various ways to handle modern PR disasters in a ‘post-truth’ era. And they appear to work especially well if you’re an egomaniacal – and possibly sociopathic/selfish – political operator.

Analysing distasteful PR disasters initiated by state heads Donald Trump (incl Locker Room Talk) and Rodrigo Duterte (incl Missionary Worker Rape Quip), researchers Ismail, Pagulayan, Francia and Pang (Nov 2018) published a paper – “Communicating in the post‐truth era: Analyses of crisis response strategies of Presidents Donald Trump and Rodrigo Duterte” – which identified some new tactical approaches to help survive negative media coverage.

Deny, lie, terrorise

The researchers claim ‘contradictory strategies’ served these two politicians well, as they fought-off severe reputation challenges. A top-line review suggests a mix of tactics deployed included:

– Machismo –  boorish, uber-male behaviour and language aimed to bully respect and obedience from men and women

– Logorrhea – a verbose oratorical style of excessive wordiness and repetitiveness, which may sound confusing and, even, incoherent

– Diversion – intended to deflect attention away from the principal concern or incident.

According to the SMU researchers, both Trump and Duterte’s blustery CRS (crisis response strategies) were “…effective as evidenced by their success, proving that the public’s search for truth was overridden by emotive rhetoric that appealed to their supporters’ prejudices.

Clearly I’m not advocating these tactics, but researchers suggest they may be effective – for some.

Values and ethics

Forget – maybe forgive? – the distressing reality that some modern ‘leaders’ appear to have the emotional maturity of a pubescent problem-child. Others just can’t handle ‘the drink’.

One PR crisis playbook simply suggests you face up, fess up and – for fig’s sake – fix it properly.

A darker new methodology – uncovered by SMU research – suggests you deny, lie and terrorise.

I know which one sits comfortably with our values and ethics, and the clients we get to advise.

Steve Dickson’s response to manufacturing his political party’s freshest PR disaster seemed to fall well short by any measure; personal, professional, ethical or academic.


About Gerry McCusker:

He’s the guy the media relies on for expert insight and analysis. He knows PR, social media and reputation management inside out and back to front. Gerry McCusker literally re-wrote the book on issues and PR management when he published ‘Public Relations Disasters’ – a scathing anthology of 79 cases of public relations blunders in 2005. Since then, Gerry has built impressive insights into the field of online reputation and issues interception. Add his contemporary media knowledge to a 30+ year career in PR and reputation-driven communication and you have a senior adviser that actually gets how online and social media affects reputation and business value.