Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Donald Trump, the “Lizard King”

As political analysts, pundits and disillusioned Democrats try to unravel the many possible reasons why Hillary Clinton lost the presidential election, they’ve all overlooked what I believe is the most important - the potency of Donald Trump’s messaging.

From the moment I heard Trump on the campaign trail, and as the crowds at his rallies began to swell, I knew deep in my gut that he could win. My Democrat friends laughed, scoffed and told me I was crazy. “He’s a clown, a reality TV star!” they said, as they chortled and guffawed. “He can’t win the primaries, much less the White House!”

Yeah, how’d that work out for you?

In their dismay and disillusion, they pointed to all sorts of explanations - low turnout among African-Americans, Hillary’s failure to hold together the Obama Coalition, white women voting for Trump in surprising numbers despite his offensive remarks and behavior, huge white male turnout in the rural red counties, strategic blunders by Hillary’s campaign ignoring Michigan and Wisconsin. The millennials! Where were the millennials? And that goddamn Electoral College!”

And I lean into the microphone and say, “Wrong.”

Like George W. Bush (with a lot of coaching from Karl Rove and Dick Cheney), Trump knew how to unleash “the reptile.” Whether, like Rove, he understood the science or not, he instinctively understood how to speak to the “reptilian brain,” also known as the “lizard brain” or “primitive brain.”

The reptilian brain is the oldest part of the brain, and consists of the same structures found in reptiles – the brainstem and cerebellum. Hence, the name. It controls our most basic vital functions like breathing, heart rate, body temperature and balance. It also controls the “fight or flight” response. Its only concern is survival. If your child walked in front of a speeding car, you would dive in front of it to save her because of your reptilian brain.

Years ago, we used to call this “the politics of fear and smear.” But modern neuroscience has shown us that it’s much deeper than that. When the reptilian brain is engaged, it overrides all other parts of the brain that are responsible for rational thought and decision-making. It works well with the part of the brain that controls emotions, but maintains supremacy over all. Once you awaken the reptile, you can make people do almost anything. The survival instinct kicks in, and rational thought goes out the window. Throughout the course of human history, messaging that appeals to the reptilian brain has been a staple of cult leaders, tyrants and dictators. I’m not saying Trump is any of those things, I’m just saying.

Think about the core of Trump’s campaign messaging. It was, “Be afraid. Be very afraid.”

When he said our economy is going down the tubes, the reptile heard, “I’m not going to be able to feed my family and we’re all going to die!” When he talked about the rise of ISIS and atrocities like beheadings, crucifixions and the slaughter of innocent children, the reptile heard, “ISIS is going to come here, chop off my head and kill my children!” When he said Mexican drug dealers, rapists and murderers were pouring across our southern border, the reptile heard, “They’re going to kill me, get my kids hooked on heroin and rape my wife!” Think of how often he used scary words and phrases like “disastrous,” “terrible,” “horrible,” “horrendous,” and “We’re in big trouble.” It didn’t matter that many of Trump’s claims weren’t supported by the facts. Once the reptilian brain is engaged, FACTS DON’T MATTER.

Then, after awakening the reptile and putting him on high alert, Trump did something brilliant. He would stroke its underbelly by offering words of reassurance – “We’re going to renegotiate NAFTA and bring jobs back to America,” “We’re going to have the best military you’ve ever seen and we’re going to defeat ISIS,” “We’re going to build a wall along the Mexican border and keep the murderers and drug dealers out,” and finally and most importantly, “We’re going to make America great again.” By executing this rhetorical two-step, Trump soon had the reptile curled up and purring in his lap. Meanwhile, Hillary’s messaging attempted to appeal to our sense of reason, compassion and emotion. But it was too late. For many voters, the reptile was in total command.

In addition to masterfully crafting his message to appeal to the darkest recesses of our brains, Trump did two other important things – kept his message simple and repeated it everywhere he went.

Adolph Hitler famously said, “Make the lie big, make it simple, keep saying it, and eventually they will believe it.” Although Hitler didn’t have the benefit of today’s neuroscience, he intuitively understood the reptilian brain. He understood that if you can make people afraid, you can get them to do anything. And, like Trump, he also understood the power of simplicity and repetition. If Hitler had access to Twitter and Facebook, the world would be a very different place today.

Throughout his campaign, Trump rarely deviated from his core talking points. Even after the release of the explosive Access Hollywood tape, where the candidate was caught openly admitting to sexual assault, Trump offered a half-hearted video apology and went right back to his core message about jobs, immigration and national security.

Like Hitler and many other leaders of mass movements, including Bill Clinton whose campaign coined the term KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid), Trump also understood the value of simplicity. He would say things like, “We’re going to renegotiate NAFTA and bring back jobs like you’ve never seen before. Trust me. It’ll be terrific.” No specifics for any of his campaign promises, but it didn’t matter. It was simple and people could remember it. I’m a Democrat and I can’t remember Hillary’s economic message other than something about green energy jobs and vague platitudes about giving every American the ability to reach his or her God-given potential. Beyond that, I’ve got nothing.

Personally, I’m no fan of Donald Trump. But way too many people on the left, in the Democratic Party and in the media underestimated the genius of his messaging.

You can’t say I didn’t warn you.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Don't Clam Up in a Crisis

I know it's counterintuitive to many people in public life and the business world, but saying nothing to the media when you are the subject of a story, particularly a negative story, is a one-way ticket to å really bad news day. And if it's a good story, making yourself unavailable or clamming up is just plain idiotic. The strategy of "duck and cover," as it's known in the political world, only makes you look like you're hiding something, whets the appetite of the media beast and keeps the news cycle churning. Unless you're under criminal indictment and anything you say can and will be used against you, it's always best to get your side of the story out early (preferably before the you-know-what hits the fan), shape the coverage, hold it to a cycle or two, and everybody moves on.

The graveyard of PR history is littered with the bones of poorly handled media crises. Perfect example - Tiger Woods. After things blew up outside his Windermere, Fla., home, one of the most well-known athletes in the world crawled into a bunker and assumed the fetal position. No statement, no press release, not even a tweet - from him or his manager - for days! When he finally made his infamous mea culpa almost a week later, his brand was a smoldering pile of ash. By waiting to say something, he stayed at the top of the news cycle for weeks when the story could have been contained to a few days. If he had come clean within the first 24 hours, he could have avoided the damage that arguably unraveled one of the greatest careers in sports history.

Faced with a crisis, it's always best to say something (in consultation with your PR man, of course) instead of ducking and covering. The two cardinal sins of effective media relations are “could not be reached for comment” and "no comment." In the age of smartphones, email, texting and 24/7 connectivity, there is absolutely no reason why anybody "could not be reached for comment." Obviously, you didn't want to be reached for comment and that means you're hiding something.

If you are reached and your response is "no comment," you ARE hiding something. Unless you are going to end up in jail, there is NEVER a reason to say, “no comment.” By preparing in advance, formulating an effective response and sticking to it, you should never have to dodge a question with a “no comment.” In fact, you should use the opportunity to recast the story and refocus the coverage in your favor. 

After all, everybody understands there are two sides to a story. Okay, maybe three.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Media Rules of the Road

When a reporter calls you, before you utter a word, you need to establish if you are “on the record,” “off the record” or “on background.” If you don’t clarify that at the outset, the assumption is you are "on the record," which means anything you say can and will be used against you. When you switch modes, make sure the reporter knows which mode you are in. Ask him/her to acknowledge that he/she understands. Those modes are as follows:
  • “On the record” – Everything you say can be used.
  • “Off the record” – Nothing you say can be used.
  • “On background” – They can use what you say as unattributed background for the story, but they can’t identify you as the source.
  • Anonymity – Being quoted as “an anonymous source” is usually granted very sparingly by reporters, in consultation with top editors, to people whose personal, professional or financial security would be jeopardized by identifying them. It also has to be a situation where the story could not otherwise be reported without the "anonymous source," and there usually is some overarching public interest at stake. Libel-conscious media outlets may also ask you to sign a sworn affidavit attesting to the truth of the information you provide anonymously. 
Before engaging in a media interview, it's best to understand the rules of the road.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Put a Little "Magic" in Your Marketing

   We recently took a trip to Disney World and I wanted to share some of my observations about what is arguably the biggest marketing machine in the history of the world, and how you, too, can borrow some of Disney's magic formula.
   We stayed on property, so as soon as we landed at Orlando Airport, we got on the Magic Express and our "magic" Disney experience was under way. Actually, it began long before we left home on the awesome and thoroughly informative web sites Disney has developed. We didn't have to touch a suitcase - everything was delivered right to our room. On the way back home, you can check your luggage right at the resort. All your travel arrangements are made extremely convenient.
   The first stroke of brilliance about Disney's marketing is that everything is "magic." Of course, it's not really magic but the inner child in all of us wants to experience magic. Right away, they capture our imaginations.
  Everything at Disney World is geared toward making your experience as easy, comfortable and "magical" as possible. All the transportation is a piece of cake to navigate and seamless. The food - even the burgers and pizza - is great, the service is first-class, the atmosphere is relaxing, fun and constantly captivates the senses. There's always something to see, look at, watch, ride, eat or listen to. It's all about "the show." That's why staff are called "cast members."
   When you arrive at your resort - in our case, Pop Century - the Disney branding is everywhere and there are constant reminders of half a century's worth of Disney magic - so maybe you'll remember how much you loved "Jungle Book" and buy the DVD. The Disney experience is also skillfully tied into the American experience. In Pop Century, for instance, each section of the resort is themed after a particular decade - in our case, the 60s, so we were surrounded by images of my childhood - bellbottoms, hippies, lovebugs, Beatles, etc. At the entrance to Magic Kingdom, you walk down "Main Street USA," which includes all the quintessential elements of a typical American Main Street - City Hall, the firehouse, the Chamber of Commerce. The inescapable message - the branding - is that Disney is as American as baseball and apple pie. And, of course, it is.
   The other thing you see on Main Street USA are shops - lots of shops. Everywhere you go in Disney World, there are abundant opportunities to part with your money and everything is expensive. But somehow, caught up in the magic of the experience, you find yourself gleefully reaching in your pocket for your debit card.
   When you get on the bus - any bus - the video monitors strategically located throughout the bus start the spiel, and the spiel is always geared toward your destination. If you're heading to Animal Kingdom, it's all about the many sites, attractions, rides and restaurants you'll find when you arrive. At every park, there's something for every age and every taste, so your kids and your parents can have an equally magical experience.
   And the merchandising - oh, the merchandising. At the exit to every major ride, before you can get back out into the park, you are routed through a gift shop with all manner of merchandise from the ride you were just on. I admit, being a guitar player, on the way off the Rockin' Rollercoaster (which is based on the music of Aerosmith and includes a welcome from the guys themselves - on video, of course) I had to buy a very cool t-shirt with a Fender Stratocaster on it - for the bargain price of $39! Interestingly, many of the shops also cross-stock merchandise from other popular Disney movies, characters, rides, etc., so in just about every shop you can find something you might want to buy.
   Aside from the great time I had with my family, the Disney experience, for me, was pure total integrated marketing magic. I always tell my clients that everything you do is marketing. In other words, advertising will bring people through your door, but what they experience when they get there is what keeps them coming back. Disney gets that - in spades - and they have spared no expense in making their guest - sorry, their audience - experience as special as possible. You can do it, too - at far less than what Disney spends.
   So take a page from the Disney's playbook and put a little magic in your marketing. And remember, the magic is in you!

Monday, January 24, 2011

Preparing for Media Interviews: Part 1 - Know Thy Interviewer

Your PR campaign has paid off and you've been asked to be interviewed by a newspaper / magazine reporter or appear as a guest on a TV or radio program. Congratulations! The following information should help you prepare:

Gather Background Information
  1. Learn all you can about the reporter or interviewer. What's his/her style?  Is he/she experienced or knowledgeable about your field of expertise? Do they have a political leaning to the right or left? Do they have an apparent bias on your issue or topic of discussion?
  2. Learn all you can about the publication / program. What is the publication/program's reputation? What kind of journalism is the publication/program known for? What are the demographics of the audience? What's the format (news, talk show, opinion, variety show, etc.)? Is the program a call-in show? Is there a studio audience?
Knowing what to expect will go a long way toward helping you prepare for the interview and will help calm your stage fright. Ask the producer, reporter or interviewer – whoever is setting up the interview – the following questions prior to your appearance:
  1. What's the topic of the interview and why was it chosen? Most producers choose timely topics or topics of general interest to their audience. (A timely topic is something that's in the news now or in sync with the season. A topic of general interest may be interesting at any time, such as cooking tips for those who are interested in gourmet cooking.) Make relevant suggestions to the producer, reporter or interviewer to highlight your latest accomplishments or activities. For example, if the topic is entrepreneurs and home-based businesses, let your contact know about a recent acount you landed that you will be servicing from your home office.
  2. Will the interviewer pull relevant information from other sources during the interview? Prep yourself on what the interviewer will know and what types of questions will be asked. Understand from whom and from where they'll obtain information. Make yourself a source of information. Provide the interviewer with your biography and company information (promo kit, brochures, etc.) well in advance. If possible, include any public relations information your company has already produced, such as videotapes or publicity photographs for TV, and audio tapes for radio. If you'll be part of a panel, find out who the other panelists are and the points they will be making. Research their backgrounds online beforehand. Keep abreast of relevant current events.
  3. How long will the interview last? Knowing the length of the interview will help you better prepare your answers to anticipated questions. Will you be interviewed for three or 20 minutes? The shorter the interview, the more critical it is that you condense your main messages into sound bites of 10 to 20 seconds.
  4. Is the interview live or taped? Live interviews may require more practice and preparation on your part. There won't be any “retakes” if you stutter, misspeak or fail to make your point. If the interview isn't live, will the recorded interview be edited? If it is recorded but not edited heavily, prepare as you would for a live interview.
  5. Where will the interview be conducted? If the interviewer or reporter is coming to your location, create a visually enhancing environment to help project a positive image and emphasize your message. Use props, or stage a working environment or situation to illustrate your professionalism and expertise. For example, if you own and operate a flower shop, you might choose to be interviewed in front of your best flower arrangements.
  6. Don’t think of how many people are watching or listening. While you should be very careful what you say, try to focus on the interviewer and think of it as a one-on-one conversation. But remember, a good interview is not a good conversation. Prepare your message carefully, make your points succinctly and stop talking. 

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

The Truth, If You Can Handle It: Why People Continue To Believe Lies in the Face of Contrary Evidence

There's an old adage in politics that if you repeat a lie often enough, people will believe it. History's most effective propagandaists - Hitler, for instance - understood this principle well. As a PR professional and student of mass communications, I am forever fascinated by the pervasiveness of lies in public discourse and the percentage of people who believe them.

I have often tried to counsel my trial lawyer clients that the truth will not set them free - that a majority of Americans believe our civil justice system is awash in frivolous litigation and no amount of evidence is going to convince them otherwise. Because they are trained to rely on evidence to prove their cases, it is a difficult concept for most attorneys to accept.

For example, in Pennsylvania, which was at the epicenter of a nationwide debate several years ago over limiting lawsuits for medical malpractice, the number of malpractice lawsuits has actually dropped by 40 percent over the past eight years and the compensation being paid to victims is down 50 percent. Meanwhile, physicians' insurance premiums have skyrocketed. If we can just get that information in front of people, trial attorneys believe, we can win the public debate over tort reform.

In a courtroom, maybe. But in the court of public opinion, whichever side in a particular debate frames the issue and gets their message out most effectively wins, regardless of the truth. Once a person adopts a particular position based on "what they've heard," it is very difficult, if not impossible, to change their minds. Why? Because people basically hear what they want to believe. A viewpoint that hews most closely to their own politics or worldview is most likely going to be the position they adopt.

An op-ed from the June 27, 2008, New York Times by two college professors, Sam Wang and Sandra Aamodt, sheds some light on the question. Here are some excerpts:
"The brain does not simply gather and stockpile information as a computer’s hard drive does. Facts are stored first in the hippocampus, a structure deep in the brain about the size and shape of a fat man’s curled pinkie finger. But the information does not rest there. Every time we recall it, our brain writes it down again, and during this re-storage, it is also reprocessed. In time, the fact is gradually transferred to the cerebral cortex and is separated from the context in which it was originally learned. For example, you know that the capital of California is Sacramento, but you probably don’t remember how you learned it.

This phenomenon, known as source amnesia, can also lead people to forget whether a statement is true. Even when a lie is presented with a disclaimer, people often later remember it as true.

With time, this misremembering only gets worse. A false statement from a noncredible source that is at first not believed can gain credibility during the months it takes to reprocess memories from short-term hippocampal storage to longer-term cortical storage. As the source is forgotten, the message and its implications gain strength ...

Even if they do not understand the neuroscience behind source amnesia, campaign strategists can exploit it to spread misinformation. They know that if their message is initially memorable, its impression will persist long after it is debunked. In repeating a falsehood, someone may back it up with an opening line like “I think I read somewhere” or even with a reference to a specific source.

In one study, a group of Stanford students was exposed repeatedly to an unsubstantiated claim taken from a Web site that Coca-Cola is an effective paint thinner. Students who read the statement five times were nearly one-third more likely than those who read it only twice to attribute it to Consumer Reports (rather than The National Enquirer, their other choice), giving it a gloss of credibility.

Adding to this innate tendency to mold information we recall is the way our brains fit facts into established mental frameworks. We tend to remember news that accords with our worldview, and discount statements that contradict it.

In another Stanford study, 48 students, half of whom said they favored capital punishment and half of whom said they opposed it, were presented with two pieces of evidence, one supporting and one contradicting the claim that capital punishment deters crime. Both groups were more convinced by the evidence that supported their initial position ... 

Journalists and campaign workers may think they are acting to counter misinformation by pointing out that it is not true. But by repeating a false rumor, they may inadvertently make it stronger."
Obviously, why people believe misinformation defies easy explanation. Some theorists believe people are most effectively motivated by fear - that the reptilian part of the brain (the part that contains the survival instinct) is the part you have to activate if you want to persuade people. There is certainly ample evidence to support such a theory.

Whatever the reasons, the truth is you can get at least some people - even a majority - to believe almost anything.

Monday, December 20, 2010

The Key To Selling Non-Profit Stories: Find a 'News Peg'

There are so many worthwhile programs and causes out there. Every day, selfless people give of their time and resources to make the world a better place, but for the most part, these organized acts of kindness take place in obscurity.

Unless you have a good PR Man (or PR Woman, of course).

When you are working with a non-profit or charitable organization, getting the media interested in covering their good work often requires some creativity. It's not blood and guts ("Clerk shot dead in convenient store robbery") mayhem, death and destruction ("Three-alarm fire leaves dozens homeless"), or something totally off the wall ("Man bites dog"). It's just good folks doing good work. Not something the media is usually interested in. (As a grizzled old editor of mine once remarked after reading my copy, "There's no sex in this story!")

The best way to sell these otherwise overlooked stories is to find a "news peg," something timely that relates to the tale you are trying to tell - a milestone, a statewide or national observance, a policy change or a trend. Clients always think their stories are interesting, but the challenge as a PR communicator is to find a way to make it interesting to a majority of readers or viewers. (See "The Media Wants Stories, Not Announcements") That's where the news peg can prove invaluable.

Remember, a story is not newsworthy without news.