Sublime to ridiculous? Presidential transition spotlights communication contrasts

by Janet Houen, Group Manager

Published on
January 13, 2017

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*Wherever you encounter an asterix, please feel free to insert your preferred adjective/phrase

Regardless which side of the threatened/promised* Trump wall you find yourself, the contrasting communication styles of the outgoing and incoming US presidents were writ large on our screens this week. If nothing else, it is clear Trump’s time in the universe’s most powerful chair will be an extraordinary case study for communicators and leaders everywhere, a brave/terrifying* new frontier of how to/how not to* in the maelstrom of modern politics and media management.

Obama’s Chicago swansong was a thing of beauty, whether you rate his record or not. The man oozes charisma, grace, reason; his delivery polished, his words powerful, his phrasing rich, his sense of humour, dignity and respect genuine and tangible. “So he has a great speechwriter” some would say. I’m sure he has several (think about how many bickered gently over POTUS Bartlet’s words for big occasions in the late-lamented The West Wing), but you can’t fake delivery in the harsh light of the rocket’s red glare. Sure, an adoring audience helps, creates a buzz that lifts and carries a speaker through, but (like a dodgy comb-over) it’s hard to hide any insincerities from the billions watching on in close-up from outside the room. OK, I’m an unabashed fan, but the most grudging analyst finds the 44th president’s communication skills hard to fault, even if they don’t buy the messaging.

Enter Team Trump. We talk a lot about ‘disruption’ these days — without doubt, Donald’s ascendancy is a tsunami of disruption, and he hasn’t even got the keys to the kingdom yet. Plenty’s been written about the role Twitter plays in his arsenal. In many ways its constraints and its ‘no filter’ form are echoed in his verbal approach — sound bites and repetition of a few key themes, short sentences, simple/dumbed-down* language — albeit lacking/blessedly free of* the ironic wit Twitter’s brevity offers canny wordsmiths. Partly a consequence of the reality TV/social media age (of which he’s both a proponent and a product), he understands this power perfectly, and caters for limited attention spans.

Fascinating from a professional communicator’s point of view, however, is how he gets away with it. And critically, how long he will be able to fend off the need for a more in-depth and diplomatic approach when the true pressures of the job kick in. Whenever he is challenged — as was again evident at his first formal media conference this week when he shouted down the CNN reporter — the default mode is to discredit and deflect, to shift the focus to the integrity of the questioner. No debate, analysis, measure, or rational commentary. As Meryl and Barack both pointed out, a free press and free speech are foundations of a functioning democracy; with clear indications that ‘all bets are off’ in the new White House, the future looks decidedly chilly for ‘frank, factual and fearless’ reporting. It is naïve to think we’ve ever had ‘the whole truth’ from any politician, but on current indications the incoming occupants of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue will take an unprecedented, undoubtedly game-changing approach to message management and response.

Buckle up, and glue down your toupé — whatever happens, it’s going to be a steep learning curve/rocky ride*.