Donald Trump: Media Master or Disaster?

Donald Trump had barely announced his candidacy for president last year when I started getting the emails.

Did he really just call Mexicans rapists?
Why is he starting a war with Fox News Channel?
Did you hear what he said about John McCain?
Did you hear what he said about Megyn Kelly?
Did you hear what he said about Carly Fiorina?

Many subscribers to this newsletter asked me, quite justifiably, when I would feature Trump as a “Media Disaster.” My reply was simple:

As soon as it stops working for him.

NEW YORK, NY - JULY 06: Donald Trump attends the 2015 Hank's Yanks Golf Classic at Trump Golf Links Ferry Point on July 6, 2015 in New York City. (Photo by Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images)

No video included in this post. For video of  Donald Trump, please turn on your TV.

Like many political and media analysts, I was convinced it wouldn’t be long before the New York billionaire’s special brand of bellicose self-promotion, questionable (and, at times, nonexistent) platform explanations, and vicious negative campaigning would result in a public implosion rivaling that of an abandoned Atlantic City casino.

Needless to say, I’m still waiting. Not only has Trump avoided self-destruction, he is now poised to clinch the Republican nomination.

In reaching these heights, Trump has defied nearly every rule of campaigning, but also every rule of media training. It appears there is nothing he can say or do to damage his standing among his supporters.

It isn’t that Trump’s fans admire him in spite of his plain spoken, spontaneous, and politically incorrect bluster. Rather, they love him because of it. Trump’s supporters want to see the apple cart upended. And if traditional politicians, reporters, and analysts have a problem with that, who cares?

It would be irresponsible to call Trump a “Media Master” when so many of his quotes in traditional and social media seem politically suicidal. And yet one cannot, in good conscience, declare him a “Media Disaster” when he continues to enjoy the impunity described above.

So what are we to make of this living, fire breathing counter-example of sound media strategy? At the very least, we need to remember that we are not Donald Trump. “Ordinary” media communicators who decide to emulate his style in the hopes of achieving the same results will surely do so at their own peril. Trump should be viewed the same way one would consider a foreign diplomat caught with a prostitute; the rules don’t apply to him because he has immunity. And if we try the same behavior, the consequences will certainly be different.

It should also be noted that Trump and his supporters are having a very real impact on the nature of discourse on the political stage. Anyone who watched the most recent GOP debate noticed that Trump’s strongest opponents, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, have been forced to become much more Trump-like in order to compete. Meantime, softer spoken candidates such as Ben Carson, Jeb Bush, and John Kasich have become political afterthoughts.

How one feels about Trump the communicator likely depends on how one feels about Trump the would-be president. And while Trump may be redefining what it is to be a successful candidate, he is not redefining proper media skills for anyone but himself.

Mark Bernheimer

Mark Bernheimer is a former CNN correspondent and the founder of MediaWorks Resource Group, an internationally renowned media training and consulting firm.