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Bring on the Clown

Learn about PR from the man whose hair, ego, and finances are all about puffery.

Donald Trump

CEO, the Trump Organization
New York City
October 24, 2004

It’s hard to tell if Donald Trump truly is a ruthless, self-serving billionaire with a weakness for Ottoman decor, or if he just plays one on TV. Either way, one thing’s certain: Nobody beats Trump at PR.

So it was that, at the behest of his front man Howard Rubenstein — the closest thing public relations has to Vito Corleone — Trump found time one recent Sunday to school 4,100 PR pros in the art of self-promotion at the Public Relations Society of America’s fall conference.

Accompanied by his now-standard royal trumpet fanfare, Trump trotted out his usual Darwinian script on how to make it big in business: Always hit back, only harder; don’t trust anyone, especially loved ones; and never underestimate the power of a good prenup.

But that’s not why Trump was addressing the flacking masses. He is himself the king of hype, with a genius for winning attention for Donald Trump and thus the Trump Empire. Why that is became clear in a streak of mean-spirited, profanity-laced, misogynistic asides that, true to form, melted everyone’s heart.

LESSON ONE: DISH DIRT, LIBERALLY.

Mid-riff on humility, of all things, Trump got big yucks for this digression: “I was walking down the street with a very young and beautiful woman named Marla. Did anyone ever hear of Marla? I have. Trust me, it cost me a fortune. It wasn’t worth it.” Trump isn’t above dissing himself, either, if it will score him a few points for color. “I think I get terrible press,” he observed. “If there’s half a sentence that says ‘his hair is terrible’ or ‘he looks like s — t,’ I take it very personally.”

LESSON TWO: KEEP IT SIMPLE, STUPID.

Part of Trump’s PR power is his black-and-white view of the universe. He hews to a simple character narrative of brash-businessman-with-a-big-ego that makes even SpongeBob SquarePants appear complex. “All my life I’ve been successful,” he began. “All my life.” When it comes to business, Donald is always, always doing “great,” despite an occasionally contrary opinion from his accountants in Atlantic City.

LESSON THREE: THE EXPLETIVE IS MIGHTIER THAN THE IDEA.

Trump regaled the crowd with his savvy strategy for managing headlines when the media thought his real estate empire would collapse in the late 1980s. “I said to the press [long pause], ‘F — k you!’ “

LESSON FOUR: SEX SELLS. MENTION SEX. A LOT.

Trump knows that settling into a stable relationship would make his PR hits drop faster than the fat diamond he just gave new fiancee Melania Knauss. In the course of a 30-minute address, he managed to make at least 15 references to women and/or the woes of marriage.

The look, the ego, the swearing, the sex. Crass, sure — but in that way, brilliant. He nailed his message, and he won 4,100 fans. It was all part of Trump’s signature (and carefully copyrighted) strategy: not just style over substance, but style as substance. Sadly, it works like a charm.

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Lots of happy faces have turned their smiles upside down thanks to the cynical idiots who have portrayed clowns as evil or frightful characters, in film and out on the streets. Traditional clowns display outsized happy faces and act out the glee of innocent children. They came down to modern generations in circuses and on early children’s television shows as colorful, happy-go-lucky characters, who could juggle and do magic, jump around and entertain in a jolly manner, make characters out of balloons, and even teach kids simple lessons of life.

How very sad that the contortions of humorless cynics are busy taking away that delight from a new generation of kids, and even the adults who recall happier times, but fear those who now sometimes hide behind masks of terror.

Some of the brightest people I have known and worked with created the happy personality, engaging appearance and educational content practiced by one of the world’s best-known and loved clowns, Ronald McDonald.  They brought life to his jolly demeanor, and helped him entertain millions of kids at birthday parties, special events, on TV,in schools and hospitals and even, sometimes at McDonald’s itself.

Now, thanks to the rabble who have turned some clownish smiles into toothy glares, and even threatened people on the streets, even McDonald’s has been forced to keep Ronald at home more often. Spoilsports, nasty adolescents, small criminals and grossly-mistaken people have tried to take the clowns away from a generation that needs small jolts of simple joy and happiness more than ever.

I was lucky enough, some forty years ago, to have been part of a group that put special places of comfort and relief for parents of seriously ill children on the map of America and around the world. They are called Ronald McDonald Houses. How did they get that name? Not because McDonald’s, as a major financial supporter, had recommended the name. Because one of the volunteers thought that the happy environment conjured up by association with Ronald would give these houses an upbeat and hopeful image. The image was a happy one, and kids being treated for serious illnesses could get a smile when they heard their parents or siblings were staying at Ronald McDonald’s house, and even visit them there.

Two generations ago, my family owned part of a circus, and my Dad and Aunt had circus horses to ride, and clown culture was part of family life. My own professional life was filled  with creating events and materials full of upbeat clown content: Ronald McDonald Shows, including school safety and environmental lessons delivered by Ronald, working with the talented comedians and others who trained and motivated those who played Ronald McDonald, naming a major national and international children’s charity after that very clown — Ronald McDonald House Charities.

Today, the explorers of artificial intelligence are creating human-like exteriors for robots, so that people will find it easier to interact with them. A clown face is but an exaggeration of a smiling human, designed to elicit a big smile in return. Anything else is not a clown, but someone’s dark dream. I say, “Bring in the clowns, the real clowns, and let’s smile again!”

Donald Trump was in rare form when I attended as a Chicago delegate his general session keynote for the largest national annual meeting of PR people, the 2004 Public Relations Society of America conference, in NYC. He had been recruited for the talk by Howard Rubenstein, the dean of “connected” public relations gurus in the city. Trump was the after lunch speaker on Sunday, October 24th, and was described in the introduction as the “consumate newsmaker, taking transparency and visibility to new heights – a man of vision and imagination.” He spoke without notes, and as if he were sitting around the bar telling stories with a couple of old male cronies, rather than to an sophisticated audience of a thousand in the New York Hilton’s Grand Ballroom. By the way, in addition to the country’s top PR professionals, the audience included hundreds of college student leaders majoring in public relations, mostly female.

While those who know me will attest I’m not easily offended, I was embarrassed for the women in the audience, young and old, as Trump made frequent sexist remarks about Vegas hookers and “chicks” and women sleeping around. His misogyny (hatred of women) seemed even bolder and yet reminiscent of Swedish playwright August Strindberg. He demonstrated he held the press in low esteem and considered them to be “dummies to be manipulated,” as I recall. Following are some “highlights” of his typically rambling stream of consciousness diatribe, as reported by one of the top PR trade magazine editors of the time, Jack O’Dwyer.

November 3, 2004
A LESSON FROM TRUMP
By Jack O’Dwyer

The speech by publicity kingpin Donald Trump to the PRSA conference Oct. 24 was remarkable in many ways but particularly for its candor.

Trump used a lot of salty language which offended some in the audience.

We didn’t like it either but we prefer it to the ambiguous business doubletalk which is standard fare at national trade conferences and meetings.

Timothy Messer-Kruse
Trump speaks at the 2004 PRSA conference.
The Trump story we liked best concerned his chance meeting with a banker who was giving Trump a lot of grief.

Trump said that in the early 1990s he owed one bank $500 million+ and that there was a “nasty, mean vicious guy” at the bank who wanted to “take me down.”

Trump had friends who had been driven into chapter 11 bankruptcy by the banker.

The press at that time had “screaming headlines” about Trump’s troubles. “I was hammered,” said Trump, adding the press was “so happy” he was in trouble. But Trump said, “I said to them, f— you,” causing an outbreak of laughter and applause.

Met Banker at Dinner
One night Trump dragged himself to yet another black-tie dinner at the Waldorf-Astoria and by chance sat next to the “vicious” banker, whom he had never met.

The first ten minutes were “tough,” he told the PRSA conference. But the two executives warmed to each other. “We just hit it off,” said Trump.

On Monday, Trump went to the banker’s office and cut a deal that practically saved his organization.

Trump told this story to show that “the harder you work, the luckier you get.”

But we see a different meaning. Hostilities often melt at lengthy lunches, dinners, golf dates, nights-on-the-town or whatever provides a chance for two different sides to spend quality time with each other.

We’d like to see PR pros and reporters do more of this. It would do more to improve PR’s understanding of the press than panels where editors sit apart and tell their deadlines and ways they want to get stories. PR firms need to loosen tight budgets.

Take Your Lumps in the Press
Trump, the most publicized figure in business, which has helped to build his fortune, showed a love/hate attitude towards the press.

“I think I get the worst press of any human being in the world,” he said. He feels coverage of him in New York is particularly “terrible.”

There’s always some “shot” against him in every story such as “his hair looks like sh-t,” he said.

“I take it very personally,” said Trump. “I used to really go crazy…but everyone else thinks I get great press. Howard [Rubenstein] does.”

Rubenstein, honorary conference chair, was sitting nearby. He had obtained Trump as a speaker when Trump said he probably would have been out golfing.

Trump said he gets so much good and bad press that it evens out.

He told of being very cooperative with media and rarely passing up a chance for publicity whether it be TV commercials for Pepsi and McDonald’s or public service appearances.

For instance, he said “Entertainment Tonight” wanted to do a feature on him but he said he had no time. He agreed when the show said the taping could be done in his office. “I gave my four minutes,” he said.

He made the same accommodation for “Access Hollywood.” Entertainment Tonight even asked him “how brilliant” he was, he noted, explaining that if he ever said such a thing about himself in an ad he would be “laughed out of town.”

Press ‘Can Kill You’
He did a Super Bowl promotion reasoning that more would see it than a $2-$3 million Super Bowl ad.

“PR is much more important than advertising,” he said to applause. “When I get the word out that a building of mine is hot,” he said, “it’s better than a full page ad” in a newspaper that few will read.

But he also warned that “The press can kill you … the press can just eat you alive.” Especially vulnerable, he said, are those who avoid the press but get one “defining story” that may be bad.

He told of a friend whom the press made out to be “the meanest jerk and he is exactly the opposite. It was a defining story. He may never have another.”

Advice we didn’t like from Trump was, “If somebody goes after you, go after the SOB and get them … the next time they won’t go after you so much.”

He also advised not trusting anyone, including employees and even “the people sitting next to you right now … they’ll take your job, they’ll take your money … being a little paranoid is not so bad.”

The appearance of Trump was brought about by the media-friendly Rubenstein firm. Conference co-chairs Kathy Lewton and Grace Leong are to be complimented for obtaining the help of Howard.

The odd thing is that the powerhouse, 170-member Rubenstein firm has only one PRSA member–Howard himself.

PRSA national and PRSA/New York should have been courting him for years. He knows so many people (3,000 attended his 50th anniversary celebration in PR) that he could easily put PRSA/New York back on the map again by supplying major speakers at chapter events, getting publicity, etc.

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