PR in the Age of Trump

Horn speaker for public relations sign symbol, vintage color - sun with blue sky

For anyone in PR, it’s impossible not to feel the dramatic change currently taking place as the new President launches an attack on the media. (Most recently, he called the media the enemy of the American people.) As a former reporter, someone who loves working with editors, reporters and producers to help them tell their stories — and an avid consumer of news — I cannot help but worry about what this means for the future of our country’s free press. One positive consequence: we have seen a dramatic increase in subscriptions to many of the nation’s top papers (despite Trump’s claims some of these papers are “failing.”)

But this isn’t a post about what we can (and should) be doing to support this fundamental of liberties, regardless of political affiliation. Rather, I want to look at how this new landscape is impacting the public relations industry, and what lessons we should be taking away.

A Changing Landscape

Let’s step back from the current rhetoric for a second, and look at how the industry has evolved over the past several years — pre-President Trump. Many PR professionals will remember the days of sending a press release to the local — or even national — paper and having it covered. New product releases were of interest and got covered without much “selling.” Company CEOs/spokespersons didn’t have to take a stance on an issue to receive coverage for their company or product.

But things have changed.

With the growing number of companies competing for attention (think of the tech space alone — there’s a start-up for everything) and the changing face of media in the digital age, the world of PR has had to change the way it interacts with and thinks about the media*. We must educate our clients that what reporters need today is an expert perspective and point of view on what is happening across an industry or how a new product is going to change the way we work and think. What reporters don’t want or need is a regurgitation of a company’s boilerplate or product descriptions. (*Side note: While I’d like to believe and be able to argue that every PR professional is always thinking about each reporter’s needs and how to help her tell the stories she needs to tell, there are many who have given the profession a bad name by blindly and mindlessly pitching. So, there are exceptions.)

That was two (long) months ago.

Now, the people writing those stories are under attack. Journalism is being threatened. And, as PR professionals, we have an important role to play. After all, we are in a position to help editors, reporters and producers tell their stories. And we can help them find the resources and information they need to write the fullest articles possible that inform and educate their audience. We need to take this job very seriously.

It starts with education

Most clients don’t want to hear that the story they want to tell isn’t going to work — especially with dreams of Wall Street Journal clips filling their quarterly goal sheets. But the reality is, some stories won’t work. It’s up to us to know which stories will, and help our clients better understand what reporters today want and, more importantly, need. It’s strategy and deep knowledge. Intelligence and confidence. Expertise and experience. Our role should be one of consultant and strategist first, implementer second (or third).

A successful PR professional today will have a deep understanding of the current — but constantly evolving — media landscape, including challenges, opportunities and obstacles. Today, more than ever, it is our job to know a reporter’s work: what she writes about, how she writes about it, what components she includes in each story, how she uses expert commentary. Beyond that, it is our job to educate our clients so that we can arm the reporter with what she needs.

We cannot ignore reality

Today’s reality — in the first two months of a new presidency — is one that most of us are not (yet) used to. Everywhere you turn — NPR, CNN, Fox, The New York Times — coverage of the new administration is dominating the headlines. As with any new administration, there are questions about what changes will mean for Americans and what we can expect over the next few years. Unlike previous administrations, there is so much early coverage on the unconventional ways this White House communicates and implements policy. For those outside of government, that makes it hard to get your voice heard.

As I mentioned above, it’s about giving reporters what they need. And, in this new reality, that often will mean an expert perspective on how a policy will affect a certain group of Americans, or what Congress should include in the replacement of the Affordable Care Act. This new reality is likely to leave companies that want to sit on the sidelines and not offer a perspective out of (often coveted) articles.

As PR professionals, it is our job to ask the tough questions and set the stage for our clients. Paint a picture of this new reality and how they fit in. Help them map out what matters to them and how it’s best to reach the audience(s) they need to reach. Is media the right medium? If so, which outlets? What do reporters that reach their audiences need? How can they help those reporters tell their stories?

Reporters have always had a tough job. Their stories have been open to criticism and — now more than in much of history — a new level of skepticism. They seek to make information available to the masses — no matter location, education or political background. As PR professionals, it is our job to help them do this, by helping them find the pieces they need to build each story they have to tell. I have always loved my job, helping tell stories. But now, more than ever, my job has more meaning than ever before. It’s helping to preserve a fundamental piece of our country’s democracy.

And I take that very seriously.


2 thoughts on “PR in the Age of Trump

  1. Thank you for sharing this. When people ask me what I am majoring in and I tell them “public relations,” they often ask if I will be working in politics. Being a journalist or PR professional in the world of politics right now is challenging, yet incredibly respected in my opinion . With all of Trump’s recent issues and attacks on the media and reporters, what is to come of PR? How do we as PR professionals stand up to such a powerful force, in order to protect our country’s democracy?


    1. Thank you for your thoughts! I have asked that question many times over, and continue to. What I tell clients and internal teams is that the landscape has changed so dramatically, so quickly, that we need to be smarter with our approaches. The need for smart, thoughtful and relevant perspectives on what is happening around us will never go away. Therefore, people who have a point of view to offer based on experience/expertise are well positioned to evolve with the shift. That said, PR as an industry is shifting and will require its own evolution (beyond just tactics). Things like content will continue to play a bigger role than in the past, so it’s important to understand where and how that fits in. In the meantime, we need to be partners with those people (i.e. journalists) who are on the front lines of truth-telling.


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