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What Government Public Affairs Can Learn From Donald Trump

Mark Drapeau (Washington, DC) —

Donald Trump is a master of public branding and marketing for himself and his eponymous business interests. While government doesn’t usually consider itself in the business of “marketing” itself, in reality, the Open Government movement is to some degree about publicizing data and information in order to get it to people who can find it useful and transform it into knowledge. Here, I discuss what government employees working in public affairs or other public-facing jobs could learn from Donald Trump’s self-promotion tactics.

Government According to Trump #1: Be Ubiquitous

Donald Trump seems to be everywhere at once sometimes, particularly when he’s promoting a new project. He’s cutting a ribbon here, filming a commercial there, playing golf in Florida, at Trump Tower with tourists in New York, appearing on Saturday Night Live in a chicken suit, insulting Rosie O’Donnell, defending Miss USA contestants, speaking at CPAC… whatever. Anything goes. And where he can’t be, it seems like he has a son, daughter, or even wife standing in for his brand.

Trump learned decades ago that people want to see an inspirational leader’s face, to feel their personal energy. To live, even a tiny bit, vicariously through them.

Now in an age of get-popular-quick new media, it’s easy to think that this can be accomplished by having a great blog, a witty Twitter feed, or a popular YouTube channel. And to some degree, that’s true – these new forms of media have allowed a lot of people to broadcast, communicate, and become mini-famous to many different ends (some of them useful, some of them less so). But this is not in itself a complete set of tactics. Everyone who wants to take things to the next level knows what Trump knows – that people want to see and meet you in person, even briefly, if you are any sort of charismatic leader.

As I discussed in my post, “Five Big Questions About Government Social Media in 2011,” it’s often difficult to tell who the “faces” of government agencies are online, and offline. Sure, there are the Cabinet-level Secretaries, who to some degree are the faces of the agencies, and they have their official spokespeople (who in some cases, like Robert Gibbs and P.J. Crowley, are taking advantage of new media). But the people running Twitter accounts, Facebook fan pages, blogs, video channels, and the like are often anonymous, or so unknown/unpopular that they may as well be anonymous. Partly, this is because they rarely make public appearances nor demonstrate charismatic leadership within “the conversation.”

It is puzzling why many government public affairs / new media people hoping to be involved in the conversation around their topics think that tweeting 9-5 is enough. Why are they not prominent fixtures at niche cocktail parties, dinners, panels, and the like? Trump would not only be there, he would be the keynote speaker, the platinum sponsor, and would give a live press conference afterward. And it all would be authentic to who he is and what he stands for.

Authenticity is practically a pillar of social media, but are you truly, 360-degree authentic? Do you participate everywhere possible? Do you use every medium to communicate with your audience and help to lead the conversation and market your government organization? Do you leverage not only media tools and intellectual knowledge but also things like manner of dress, location of appearance, and (forgive me) sex appeal – which Trump has in his own peculiar way – to deliver messages and lead the conversation?

And conversely, what are the possible consequences of being a young deputy spokesperson with a cable television news presence but no Facebook profile or Twitter account? How does that appear to interested citizens, and how does that limit an organization’s communications?

Government According to Trump #2: Be Strategic

One common complaint I hear about new media and communications both inside and outside government is that so little money is allocated to it; thus, there’s only so much that can be done. There’s the budget, there’s what we can afford, there’s what you’re going to it.

Donald Trump has plenty of money (usually), but he often doesn’t need it. That’s because he trades favors, strategically, with people who can help him, and with people he can help. This puts things closer to reach than they might appear at first sight. Whether it’s writing a book with Robert Kiyosaki of Rich Dad, Poor Dad fame, or collaborating with NBC on The Apprentice, he’s trading access to audience. He’s leveraging communications. He didn’t pay-to-play.

As I wrote in an earlier SECTOR:PUBLIC article, government public affairs often works in silos around agencies and not issues. An unfortunate consequence of this is that such agencies are paralyzed from doing what Trump and others do so well: strategic partnerships. Of course these happen sometimes, but they are more the exception than the rule.

Part of this is about creating real interest in what you’re actually doing, in the case of public affairs, in the messages you’re communicating or the conversation you’re hoping to lead. Your content is meaningless unless the audience feels involved in “your story,” whatever the strategic message/goals are of your organization. Trump motivates (manipulates?) people to get involved in the story of the Trump brand, like it or hate it.

To the degree that government public affairs can leverage the audiences of unconventional partners, they can expand their influence for little cost. If a public-private partnership can build a highway, why can’t it curate a database of information or run a YouTube channel?

Strategic alliances are what separates the elite from the good. Are you leveraging strategic alliances to help others inside or outside the government, and fill in gaps in your repertoire? Are you willing to risk to gain reward? Does your public affairs strategy revolve around pay-for-play and having staffers grind it out in cubicles, or does it incorporate unconventional partnerships, appearances, and other engagements?

Government According to Trump #3: Exceed Expectations

It’s easy to hate Trump. But it’s hard to disagree with the sheer quality of most of what he does. It is hard to not be overwhelmed from the outside or the inside of his properties. By his staff. By all the… gold. And let’s face it, when The Apprentice debuted, you were glued to that TV set. It was the most exciting reality show to come out in that timeframe.

With your government public affairs, are you checking the box, meeting your scorecard, following orders… or are you “shocking” your audience by exceeding their expectations, committing to providing a great service, overwhelming them with attitude, expertise, or other factors?

Let’s face it – a lot of citizens don’t think highly of their government, fair or not. Or, they are themselves confused about what they actually want out of government. The good news for hard-working, well-meaning government employees is that the bar has been set so low by the audience that their expectations are not hard to exceed.

Yet it rarely seems to happen.

The table has been set by the Open Government movement and other factors. Government agencies are poised to have people emerge who are for their public faces what Robert Scoble was to Microsoft years ago. This may or may not be “good” in specific cases, and there is a legitimate debate over that, but it is neverless ready to occur. There is little to stop someone from being the unofficial yet extraordinarily popular “Donald Trump of Agency X” at this time. (And we have seen primordial versions of this already, for example, Jared Cohen of the State Department.)

If you are making videos, tweeting, blogging, or even occassionally speaking on a conference panel or doing a trade press interview on-the-record, are you exceeding the expectations of the audience? Are your comments or content roughly what people expect, or do you throw in a meaningful yet unexpected twist that keeps people interested and wanting more? Do people outside your niche that you don’t know rave about your work and spread valuable word-of-mouth for you and your agency?

Government According to Trump #4: You’re Hired

The most important and trusted source of information about “Trump” is Trump. Are you the most trusted source of information about your agency? Is that your goal?

A modest prediction. Even if it is “outside the box” and not the most obvious career path, there will be increasing opportunities for people who become the trusted, authentic voices of their agencies to meaningful niche audiences. Jared Cohen is now the Director of Google Ideas, for example… and there will be more where he came from.

The only questions about this in my mind are: Who? Where? How?

Further, public affairs employees who put themselves “out there” in real life, after hours, and not just digitally from their cubicles during government/business hours will – very simply – be far better at networking with influential people who can help them in various ways. Meaningful exposure to influential people can start online, to be sure, but meeting in person at conferences, cocktail hours, and private meetings in the proverbial back-room allows elites and aspiring elites to size each other up and decide whether things go to the next level.

Online tools can reinforce these real-life encounters, too, but they are not a crutch. Many influential people are more than aware of social media, and have accounts on various platforms, yet do not use them enough to be highly influenced by them. Others mainly read but don’t interact. They also may read but don’t necessarily fully trust mainstream media. They trust what their personal networks tell them. Thus, real-life encounters must be a part of a government public affairs “influencer’s” routine.

All of this helps with “Trump rules” 1-3 above: it adds exposure that makes one seem ubiquitous, it generates ideas for strategic partnerships, and it creates unique opportunities for continuously exceeding audience expectations. This is the recipe for advanced government public affairs “according to Trump.”

Dr. Mark Drapeau is the Editor of SECTOR:PUBLIC and the Director of U.S. Public Sector Social Engagement for Microsoft. He last wrote, “Five Big Questions About Government Social Media in 2011” in January. You can follow him on Twitter at @cheeky_geeky.

Photos of Trump art, Trump chicken, Trump Tower, and Trump “The Apprentice” used under Creative Commons.

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Andrew Krzmarzick

“…government public affairs / new media people hoping to be involved in the conversation around their topics think that tweeting 9-5 is enough. Why are they not prominent fixtures at niche cocktail parties, dinners, panels, and the like?”

#2 – #4 are solid, Mark. But I’d throw out #1. I think most people (a) are just holding their head above water in the office and social networking events and conferences take time from accomplishing deadline-driven job duties and (b) have families…so they give their all to their jobs during the day, then they go home and spend time with the people for whom they are really working in the evenings.

Mark D. Drapeau

Andy, #1 is the difference between average and exceptional, between “doing your job” and being extraordinary at your job. Exceptional people, frankly, count on most people to “throw out #1” so that they get more out of doing it.

Rebecca Schreiber

I believe that many feds can learn to champion their programs like Donald Trump champions his brand. What I’ve learned from him is a willingness to keep trying new things to regain your competitive edge. The Donald has certainly fallen on hard times and has pulled several financial shenanagans, bankrupting several of his properties (my favorite: calling the financial crisis and Act of God to get out of a debt contract). When times get tough, though, he starts doing TV shows and Oreo commercials – anything to get back on track. Beware the Donald, love the tenacity.