The campaigns for Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump were each clouded by controversy and punctuated by different scandals, and as public relations practitioners it is important that we acknowledge how these issues were handled. The candidates spent copious amounts of time and energy to build their self images and to brand themselves. So the question is posed: Was it effective?
Hillary Clinton: A Battle with Transparency
It became known even before the presidential campaign that Hillary Clinton, during her stretch as Secretary of State, used a private email server to send sensitive documents. This in itself did not generate goodwill for Clinton, but even after the news broke, her lack of openness on the subject was what really concerned voters.
The FBI investigation was given ample news coverage, but Clinton herself did not hand in the server until five months after intense curiosity. In fact, according to CNS News and other sources, it was discovered that she had hard drives and several of her devices destroyed in anticipation of the investigation. This is a huge misstep from a public relations standpoint — where transparency is key. Public figures like Clinton are always susceptible to scrutiny, and when they appear to be hiding something, that scrutiny is significantly elevated.
Transparency remained an issue in the next scandal: WikiLeaks. The site leaked more emails that raised questions about the use of funds in the Clinton Foundation, according to the International Business Times. For any nonprofit organization, transparency is essential in regards to the allocation of development dollars. The scandal caused even further damage to Clinton’s image, painting her as irresponsible and unethical.
If anything, Clinton’s campaign has enforced the necessity of complete full disclosure when representing public figures. Politicians, are held to a higher standard, and it is always better for them to be the first voice to be heard when a controversy arises.
Donald Trump: Starving for Publicity
From a public relations perspective, Trump’s campaign was a nightmare: He had negative press from almost every major news source, including the Washington Post, New York Times, and Politico Magazine. The same sources indicated that his strong rhetoric alienated large groups of the voting pool — women, minorities, the LGBTQ community — which is simply ineffective branding. Trump’s campaign may have harvested a very select target audience that achieved overall victory, but the intense outcry and clamor after the results were announced are a demonstration of his futility to reach the mass American audience.
After the recording of Trump’s sexually explicit comments from 11 years ago came to light, he attempted to address it during the second presidential debate. There, the manner in which he addressed it fell short of a full apology, and to many it seemed he was making excuses — attempting to dismiss it as “locker room talk.” This is a public relations flaw, as the public figure minimized his offense instead of accepting the gravity of the situation.
Melania Trump’s plagiarism debacle was also a major flop. The future first lady’s speech writers were, at best, lazy for not more carefully selecting her words. As public relations practitioners, we should take away the importance of not taking short cuts and being diligent and intentional with our efforts.
Trump’s campaign was bursting with inflammatory remarks that kept his name in the media. What we can learn is that each comment and action from a public figure is remembered, and everything contributes to a brand image that can make or break a campaign. In public relations, it is our task to ensure those remarks are favorable more often than not, controlling the message to the best of our ability.
Teghan Simonton is a sophomore at Waynesburg University with a dual major in public relations and journalism. She serves as the content coordinator for Waynesburg PRSSA and as managing editor for the award-winning Yellow Jacket student newspaper.