Donald Trump's mastery of the media

21 Feb 2017 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 21 Feb 2017

Donald J Trump the 45th US president. Picture: White House

Are media commentators under-estimating Donald Trump? Nick Garbutt asks if there is method to the apparent madness. 

Few politicians like the media regardless of what they say in public. Yes, they can use it to build profile, but being held to account can be uncomfortable – and when publications don’t agree with you and, heaven forfend, attack you, well that’s disastrous. Or at least it used to be.

New Labour was designed and created with this in mind. When Neil Kinnock lost the 1992 Election after leading in the polls many credited the Sun’s infamous front page “If Kinnock wins today will the last person in Britain please turn the lights off”.

So Blair and his strategist Peter Mandelson and media manager Alastair Campbell vowed that would never happen again.

Blair’s prime ministry was characterised by its obsession with the media – currying favour with press baron Rupert Murdoch, and ultimately winning his support, badgering journalists about every word that they used and mainstreaming political “spin”.

Campbell’s team created a “media grid” to micromanage messaging across all departments and his team mastered the art of the non-denial denial.  Bad news was buried, there is evidence that lies were told.

This radical approach to news management was successful for a while but did not withstand the test of time. As news channels switched to 24/7 coverage, the carefully crafted media grid proved inadequate: communications needed to be constant and the spin machine could not always keep up.

The regime’s aggression and ruthlessness created resentment. Campbell and his colleagues became part of the story and news outlets would increasingly report government statements as spin rather than fact.

The world had changed: command-and-control communications had stopped working, there were too many outlets. People were less deferential to official channels of information and this process was exacerbated by the subsequent growth of social media. Organisations now have to have conversations with people rather than tell them what to think.

The Blair years and their aftermath had a profound impact on conventional public relations. Spinning went out of vogue and it became an axiom for the industry that communicating with integrity was paramount in the protection and enhancement of reputation. We’d all moved on.

To those who have been schooled in this philosophy, Trump comes as a profound shock.

They mock his media appearances saying that he is naïve and buffoonish in his dealings with the press and laugh at his seeming disregard for the truth.

This is to underestimate the dark genius of a man who has demonstrated over many decades an absolute mastery of the media, defying all the norms to build his profile despite a litany of setbacks and scandals.

Back in March 2015, before he had secured the Republican nomination, American media analysts mediaQuant were estimating that the value of the coverage of his candidacy to that point at $1.9 billion of free attention from media of all types. This amount was more than twice what Hillary Clinton received and six times that of Ted Cruz, Trump’s nearest Republican rival. Examine total coverage of Trump up to that point alone and one veteran political correspondent has come up with $1 trillion.

This is significant because in American politics building voter recognition is of fundamental importance, which is why there is such a strong tendency for political dynasties (most recently the Bush and Clinton families) to flourish.

So in fighting and winning the Presidential election Trump was the best known, most recognised candidate ever to take part in the race. He had a lot going for him.

The phrase “all publicity is good publicity” is often attributed to Phineas T. Barnum, the 19th century American showman and circus owner. It’s not a dictum that has been followed by political leaders, until now.

But this is precisely how Trump has built his personal brand. Note that word brand because he clearly sees his name as a brand. So therefore the more we heard about him, the bigger that name got and the more valuable it became. It is harder to conceive a greater contrast to Blair’s approach. Blair was interested in managing news, Trump in maximising exposure. And he was very, very good at it and obstinate enough not to care about the bad stuff.

It is an approach that has confounded both political observers and PR/marketing experts who all thought that Trump would never win because eventually the negative material, all easily accessible,  would become so toxic that the trajectory would reverse, and he would crash and burn.

Yet in presidential race his ratings continued to rise despite, and perhaps even because of his arrogance, crassness and apparent blunders.

Thus when there was a furore over Melania Trump’s infamous speech which appeared to have plagiarised one delivered by Michelle Obama, he said: “Good news is Melania’s speech got more publicity than any in the history of politics especially if you believe that all press is good press!”

That was a telling insight: clear evidence that Trump genuinely doesn’t mind bad publicity, because it puts him in the spotlight which is where he wants to be.

Perhaps he learned that when he had an affair with Maria Maples in 1990. Many observers said he was finished at that point. Lurid headlines spilled out of the US tabloids into the highbrow press and for day after day Trump dominated the front pages. Business experts and PR experts said it would finish him: he thrived on it.

This is perhaps because he first started to build his celebrity status by featuring prominently and regularly in the gossip columns of the Murdoch-owned New York Post in the 1980s.

Last year former gossip columnist Susan Mulcahy wrote a fascinating piece for Politico about this period which can be accessed here.

She wrote: “Denying facts was almost a sport for Trump, and extended even to mundane matters. While still married to his first wife, Ivana, Trump bought a mansion in Connecticut, and she decorated parts of it. Not the most earth-shattering news, but hey, everyone has slow days. When I called to confirm the purchase, Trump denied it, more than once. Sure enough, before long, he was spending weekends in the mansion, parts of which were decorated by Ivana. Did he think twice about such a seemingly pointless lie? Why would he?”

Alternative facts go back a long way, it would seem, with Trump.

There is more to it than that. Tabloids treat celebrities as players in a public soap opera and the public love to chronicle their rises, their scandals and their come backs. Trump seems to understand that and to have exploited that process more effectively than anyone else to date. If he really is a monster he is one the media itself has created and it no longer controls the narrative.


Trump’s profile and attendant publicity has been integral to his rise to power. Now he has reached the presidency he is using the platform he now has to claim that all attacks on him are not just bad but “fake news”.

It is an interesting solution to the problem encountered by Blair and others. If you can’t control the media, demonise it, and use your profile to reach directly to supports.

Again you detect the brand building at work. When he attacked the media at his press conference last week he cited polls which gave the media lower ratings than himself and “even Congress”. He therefore believes that it is achievable for him to set out “alternative facts” and be believed and to transcend negative coverage by attacking its authors. This is an interesting concept based on the belief that the more popular you are the more likely you are to be believed, even if, at times, you say things which are not true.

At his rallies the media is allocated to a pen which is patrolled by the Secret Service, creating a theatrical effect of the “enemies of the people” caged before him. This in turn encourages his supporters to abuse and berate members of the press.

The Trump approach has never been tried before as far as I can establish by any other political leader anywhere. To date it has been a staggering success. Whether it will continue to be so now he is in office is anybody’s guess. Whatever you might think of him, Trump is not a buffoon. He has an absolute mastery of the media and has confounded every single expert who predicted that what he was setting out to do was impossible.


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