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Amplify: A Media Relations Object Lesson From Donald Trump

March 28, 2014

Jeff Weintraub

396px-Donald_Trump_by_Gage_Skidmore.croppedI DON’T USUALLY spend a lot of precious time thinking about Donald Trump, but his dust-up last month with a public relations consultant offers an unexpected object lesson about basic media relations.

The incident surrounds an article about Trump by McKay Coppins of Buzzfeed, the online news / entertainment / click-bait (or whatever you want to call it) site. According to the New York Post, after a request to allow Coppins to interview him during a trip to New Hampshire (“Trump was there to deliver a political speech widely seen as being aimed at running for president in 2016 and not for New York governor this year,” the Post said.), Trump turned to his media advisor, Sam Nunberg, to ask whether or not he should do it.

Trump said his first reaction was not to do the interview, saying, “I understand what Buzzfeed is.”

“But Sam said to me, ‘This guy is a friend of mine. It’s going to be a great story. I have confidence it will be fair.’

So I actually did the interview as a courtesy to Sam.

“But I said to Sam, ‘If this guy writes a fair story, that’s fine. But if he writes a wise-guy story, you’ll be fired.’ And I said to Sam, ‘OK?’

“And Sam said, ‘OK.’ ’’

Coppins wrote what is actually a pretty interesting, but not terribly flattering piece. I can see how Trump might consider it a “wise-guy” story, but then, as you’ll see, Trump provided some undeniably weird material, which Coppins recorded. Was it accurate? I don’t know, but it all seems plausible.

“After the article appeared, Trump acknowledged, ‘I called [Nunberg] in and said, ‘Sam, you’re fired!’ Trump said the article was filled with ‘inaccurate reporting’’ and presented flippant or out-of-context remarks.”

[Sigh] Where to begin? Based only on what I read in this Post article (there might be more to the story, but I sort of doubt it):

First of all, it might surprise you to hear me say that I have a little sympathy for Trump on this. But only a little. He was apparently conscious enough to know what BuzzFeed is, and, based on that, was hesitant to give an interview in the first place.

I don’t blame him. While I think there is a time and place for BuzzFeed’s offerings – hey, it can be fun to read sometimes – Trump is too colorful a character to expect any media outlet, much less this one, to leave out his unsightly blemishes.

Second, his advisor, Sam Nunberg, was a bit naïve, to say the least, to think that a relationship with Coppins would produce a puff piece. I can hear the editors saying, “Dude [I don’t know why, but I imagine Buzzfeed people say “Dude” a lot, but I’m stereotyping], bring me back a good one. Something juicy.” The truth is, there aren’t many news outlets that would think differently. Trump’s entertainment value, particularly when he deludes himself into thinking he’s a viable candidate for public office, is just too hard to resist.

To be sure, Nunberg had to go with his gut to a certain extent. I’ve been there, too. We have to evaluate what we think is likely to happen when we engage with a reporter – even if he or she is a friend. To a certain extent, we always have to take a leap of faith that the reporters will live up to their assurances to be fair and thorough.

Still, ultimately, the control is completely out of our hands. Contrary to what our clients and the uninformed think,wWe p.r. people do not “control” reporters (at least not in the U.S. – things are different around the world). We try to maximize the chances that things will come out well . Sometimes — but not often– we get burned.

If my client was as sensitive to unfavorable coverage as Trump seemed to be in this case (amazingly for a guy who’s so in love with getting into the media), I’d say, “You really shouldn’t be doing media at all,” or, at the very least, I can’t guarantee you anything, so don’t do it if you have a queasy feeling.

More strategically, what did either Nunberg or Trump think they were going to get out of BuzzFeed, even if the article had pleased Trump. While it promises wide circulation, I’m not sure BuzzFeed would give Trump the credibility he needs to mount a campaign for public office – or whatever the hell he thinks he’s trying to accomplish.

I feel a bit sorry for Nunberg, but he had to know that working for Trump was never going to be easy. But I also feel a bit sorry for Trump, who, after all, trusted his advisor to give him good guidance. He should have known better himself, especially considering that he gave extraordinary, behind-the-scenes access to the reporter.

I also feel sorry for all of the rest of us who seek out good and serious news reporting and who too often see news organizations eating up valuable media real estate and air time with Trump’s crazy rantings.

Jeff

Trump photo by Gage Skidmore

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