Time and again during the 2016 campaign—as he faced a dizzying blizzard of attacks, made numerous outrageous statements and navigated countless campaign crises—we heard that Donald Trump was “throwing out the rule book” in how he handled these controversies. It’s true. For decades, some widely accepted rules for handling scandals and missteps had dominated politics; savvy veterans of the Bill Clinton era successfully applied these approaches to the businessworld as well. And Trump blew through them all.
But the real estate mogul did more than that. He wrote an entirely new playbook for crisis communications.
As someone who served as an adviser to the Hillary Clinton campaign, I fundamentally disagree with everything that Trump stood for on the trail. But it would be foolish to ignore how often his tactics were effective. The president-elect refused to release his tax returns; he’s been accused of sexually harassing numerous women; and he’s likely to take office on January 20 without having divested his business interests. How did he get away with it?
Trump saw a change in the political landscape that many other failed to see; and everyone from political strategists to corporate communicators to those in the media would do well to pay attention. If they want to survive controversies in the future, they’ll want to study these five core postulates of Trump’s new crisis management playbook.
Old Rule: Never explain
New Rule: Always arm allies with an explanation
The “never explain” rule goes back to Ronald Reagan, who said “if you are explaining, you are losing.” The basic idea is this: If you have an unpleasant action to defend, once you start explaining it, you have lost. Instead, you must brush past the problem, apologize for it (see below) or counter-attack in the face of it—but never “explain” it.
But the Trump campaign came to understand that in today’s communications environment—where social interactions between supporters and their friends and neighbors (via Twitter, Facebook or old fashioned face-to-face conversations) are critical—a campaign’s advocates must be armed with “explanations” for their candidate’s actions. The Trump campaign thus replaced the “never explain” rule with a determination to always explain his statements and deeds, no matter how inexplicable they might seem. Trump was refusing to release his tax return because he was “under audit.” The comments on the Access Hollywood tape were “locker room talk.” His statement supporting the invasion of Iraq could be disregarded because it was made on Howard Stern, as a sort of joke that he “said very lightly.” Never mind that these explanations did not satisfy fact-checkers or the media; never mind that they ranged from outright false to downright ridiculous. The point is that Trump supporters were armed with an explanation that they accepted and that enabled them to defend their candidate in the face of withering attacks.
The lesson is an important one: In a world where social communications (digital and otherwise) are dominant and also seen as more “credible” than mass media, you must arm your network of allies with explanations if you want them to play offense on your behalf.
Old Rule: Apologize and move on
New Rule: Never apologize and double down
At the heart of the old set of rules was a basic idea: Everyone makes mistakes; when you do, offer a heartfelt apology, and then try to move on. Apologizing has become so widespread in crisis communications that pundits analyze corporate apologies each year to praise the most effective ones. In the 2016 campaign, Hillary Clinton apologized for over a dozen things, ranging from her 1996 use of the word “super-predator,” to her 2002 vote in support of the Iraq War, to her 2009 decision to use a private email server at the State Department, to her 2016 use of the phrase “basket of deplorables.”
Trump, by contrast, almost never apologized in 2016. Not for attacking John McCain, a heroic POW. Not for belittling a beauty queen. Not for besmirching a Gold Star family. Not for calling immigrants “rapists.” Not for urging supporters to beat up dissenters at rallies. And not for about 100 other things that “best practice” communications advice would say that someone absolutely, positively must apologize for. And not only did Trump refuse to apologize for these many errors, insults or mistakes, he often doubled down on attacks or controversial comments, re-upping his remarks with renewed intensity or further elaboration.
Many observers wrote off Trump’s refusal to apologize as stubbornness, but perhaps it reflects a mindful strategy born from our apology-heavy communications culture. In a world awash in apologies, so commonly offered by politicians, corporations and authorities, perhaps saying “I’m sorry” seems trite and tired. The Trump campaign may have grasped a new reality that apologies today often seem insincere, inauthentic and ineffective. “Sorry I’m not sorry” is a popular saying on social media today: It’s a message Trump embraced and made his own in 2016.
Old Rule: Get your facts straight before you comment
New Rule: Go with your gut, quickly
Of all the aspects of Trump’s Twitter-driven campaign, the most under appreciated was its ability to operate at breakneck speed. After virtually every single news event that occured in the 18 months since he announced his bid for president, Trump was the first Republican or Democrat to comment—because his comments came straight from the gut, in rapidly fired, 140-character shots. While other candidates as well as the Obama White House took time to assess the facts behind a terrorist attack, a new economic statistic or a ghastly crime, and then took time to develop a thoughtful statement, to be cleared by substantive experts and hierarchical chains-of-authority before being released, Trump immediately fired off a tweet with his take, dominating early coverage of events and making sure his voice was heard.
Were Trump’s tweets often wrong? Yes. Trump often placed blame erroneously, failed to grasp the true significance of an event or got his facts totally incorrect. But by getting his voice out first, getting his views out ahead of the deluge of commentary and speculation and opining that has become a regular part of the news cycle, Trump made sure he was heard and his points were absorbed by the public. Trump traded making mistakes for having more impact. Putting aside the question of whether we are living in a “post-truth” world, there can be little doubt that “narrative” is critical to public understanding of events—and shaping that narrative early is more effective than trying to reconfigure it later.
Old Rule: Don’t feud with people who buy ink by the barrel
New Rule: You can score points by going to war with the media
Experts disagree on who coined the old adage “Don’t fight with people who buy ink by the barrel,” but generations of political pros and corporate communicators have lived by it. Even as “ink” has morphed into “pixels” in the digital age, the basic idea has remained the same: Political and business leaders may be able to fight against specific stories or points in the press, but they cannot win in the long run by going to war against the press corps as a whole.
Trump clearly wrote a new rule here as well—not by objecting to particular stories or particular outlets, but by waging an all-out assault on the “mainstream media,” including the most respected press organizations (the “failing” New York Times), and even on (“bimbo”) Megyn Kelly, the most visible journalist working for conservative media titan Fox News. (She has since been hired by NBC.) Some Trump speeches included more attacks on the press than on his political opponents, and Trump supporters relished it.
Trump’s battle against the media was more than an effective rhetorical device for his campaign speeches: It enabled his supporters to discount any criticisms of him that came via the mass media. Critical questions from debate moderators, an unprecedented array of editorials endorsing his opponent, prominent fact-checking sites debunking his claims—all could be dismissed as the product of “mainstream media” bias. Trump did not just survive a battle with the media: He depended on it, and made it integral to his campaign strategy.
Old Rule: Drive a consistent message, consistently
New Rule: Adapt constantly, disorient your opponents and the media
One oft-repeated opinion about the 2016 campaign is that Trump had a consistent, effective message (“Make America Great Again”), while Clinton lacked a similar unifying theme. I disagree: I think the Clinton campaign’s “Stronger Together” message was as coherent and evocative to her supporters as “#MAGA” was to Trump’s. In fact, what Trump did that was innovative on the message front was not his consistent driving of the “MAGA” message, but rather, it was the opposite—his constant changing of messages, almost without regard to whether they were working or not, in an effective effort to disorient his opponents and the media covering him.
He would hit his primary opponents with a vicious nickname, and then an enthusiastic embrace. On various days, Trump boasted of meeting Putin, said he had never met Putin, said he would work with Putin, said he was tough enough to take on Putin. He insulted minority voters even as he told them they had nothing to lose by joining him. He was for a ban on Muslim immigration except when he was not; he was for a deportation force unless he wasn’t; he was going to get the Mexicans to pay for the wall but then he wasn’t. He told 100 million Americans on television he didn’t want to raise Bill Clinton’s alleged infidelities at the first debate because Chelsea Clinton was in the live audience; then he did so at the second debate, in front of 90 million Americans and the former first family. He out-and-out denied saying many things that he had absolutely, positively, been captured on video tape saying.
After the campaign, this all got swept into a nostrum about taking Trump “seriously, but not literally.” But this fails to appreciate how Trump befuddled political opponents and media coverage by constantly shifting positions, arguments and attacks. The campaign relied on the very short memories generated by the rapidly scrolling Twitter feed and the “Breaking News” appetite of cable television to confuse without suffering much in the way of consequences. Candidates were left unsure of exactly what Trump stand they were opposing—and flummoxed reporters mostly just paroted back the latest Trump declaration.
Thus, the 2016 Trump campaign did not just “break all the rules”—it wrote an entirely new rule book. Always arm allies with explanations. Never apologize. Respond immediately. Do not fear conflict with the media. Constantly adapt and disorient.
What remains unclear is whether these rules will work for anyone other than Trump. When he launched his campaign, the businessman and reality TV host was already well known, had unprecedented visibility, was largely self-funded and had an appetite for risk and controversy unusual for prominent political or business leaders—all reasons to assume the 2016 playbook might not work for another campaign.
But it would be wrong to dismiss the possibility too quickly. While these new rules are particularly suited to Trump, they also reflect a new political reality, different from the one that brought the old set of rules into existence. They take advantage of the importance of social media, of the need to cut through the overwhelming amount of information bombarding us each day and of the rapidly turning news cycles (and shortening memories and attention spans arising from that).
The game has changed, and future political players of all stripes—and even corporate message makers, too—will surely want to take at least some tactical pages from the new Trump Playbook.