There is little doubt that President Trump’s June 1 publicity stunt at St. John’s Church will go down in the PR record books as one of the most ill-advised, dangerous and troubling moments in modern presidential history.
Negative reaction was swift:
- “Trump may have broken international law with ‘unjustified’ use of a chemical weapon on protesters,” according to Salon.com;
- An MSNBC story claimed, “It was quite possibly the most ridiculous presidential photo-op in the history of presidential photo-ops;”
- A senior defense official resigned;
- Church leaders lambasted the president;
- Tom Friedman stated in the New York Times that the bible (a prop) was held upside down;
- John Filo, my former CBS colleague and witness to the Kent State shootings, wondered, wryly, on Facebook whether the president retrieved the Bible from a motel room.
These are not reactions that one wants from a publicity stunt.
It reminded me of all the things that I, and many of you, have learned over the years. “Don’t do anything stupid.” “Don’t get anyone hurt.” “And never make your client look foolish.”
The White House seemed to have botched all of those things in one fell swoop.
Jim Mendenhall, an African-American friend since college, noted that another troubling layer involved the participants, notably the ones missing.
“As I watched that horrible walk Trump made from The White House to the church, I saw no person of color, other than the female Secret Service officer. Where are the voices of black leadership in the administration…total silence!”
Many of us have worked on spectacular stunts over the years. And we’ve certainly worked on some “doozies,” too. The good ones you tend to remember and cherish; the bad ones you want to forget.
Publicity stunts are inherently complicated, with so many “moving parts” and so much that could go wrong. What went wrong with Trump's publicity stunt will be studied by industry observers and in college PR classes for years to come.
The course headline? “If In Doubt, Don’t Do It.”
Tom Goodman is founder and CEO of Goodman Media International, Inc.