Fraser P. Seitel
Fraser P. Seitel

Among the saddest manifestations of today’s new “journalism”—right up there with the demise of objectivity at The New York Times—is the embarrassing devolution of Brian Williams.

Five years ago, Williams was Lester Holt, riding high as the admired anchor of the NBC Nightly News. Then suddenly, Williams made up a bizarre story about bravely surviving an Iraqi War attack, and NBC demoted him to its minor-league franchise, MSNBC, where the once-revered journalist continues each evening to toe his employer’s left wing line. So, it wasn’t surprising after the final 2020 Presidential debate that Williams eagerly leapt to condemn the performance of the reviled Donald Trump.

Had Williams not been banished to the network’s dark side and remained NBC news anchor, it’s likely his assessment of Trump’s debate would've been much more nuanced and positive. In point of fact—and despite what you learned from the Trump-hating, Democrat-favoring media—for this one brief moment, Trump finally demonstrated why 40 percent of the voting public adores him. He was strong yet restrained—obviously, the valium kicked in—specific about his Administration’s multiple pre-COVID accomplishments—from economic expansion to China tariffs to prison reform—and pointed in his criticism of his opponent’s striking lack of accomplishments in 50 years in politics.

The problem for the President was that it was likely too little, too late. And if, as expected, America’s experiment with the frenetic presidency of Donald Trump crashes to a close next month, the soon-to-be-former President can blame one culprit in particular: public relations.

Barring another miraculous intervention from a vengeful god, it appears as this is written—one week before Election Day—that Trump is destined to be defeated by the weakest presidential candidate since a scrawny Michael Dukakis donned a helmet and climbed into a tank.

For the megalomaniacal Trump, such a defeat to such a limited adversary is as frightening as it is inexplicable. How could a past-his-prime, out-of-touch glad-hander be kept in a basement for the length of the battle only to emerge victorious against an opponent so clearly more competent and better qualified?

The long answer: Trump’s resolute refusal to accept the counsel of others and his continuing conviction that he, above all others, possessed the best instincts to win caused his failure to win the votes of fence sitters in swing states and ultimately led to his stunning political demise. The short answer: public relations.

Three Trumpian public relations misjudgments in the campaign’s crucial final weeks prove the point.

First, he bad-mouthed a beloved icon

One enduring principle of public relations is that you don’t attack individuals who enjoy great public approval, like Mother Theresa or Peyton Manning or the Pope.

In today’s COVID America, where everybody despises everybody else, there’s at least one esteemed individual who basks in near universal acclaim, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert.

Dr. Fauci is our favorite uncle—wise, understated, a former ball player, a little guy with a big heart. And even Donald Trump recognized Fauci’s ubiquitous appeal and wisely gave him a wide berth to reinforce his views and independence. “Gave” him, that is, right up until the worst possible moment.

In a phone call three weeks before Election Day to campaign supporters—with anti-Trump reporters listening in—the President gratuitously lambasted Fauci as a “disaster,” whose advice—like other scientist “idiots”—was often misguided.

Anti-Trump reporters couldn’t believe their good luck, jumping on the Fauci comment with glee, while Trump supporters universally wondered, “Who asked you?”

The presumed damage of Trump’s comments was that the last thing needed by fence-sitting, swing state voters—the only ones who really count at this point—was a reminder of the candidate’s juvenile bellicosity, particularly directed at such an honorable target.

The public relations advice the candidate disregarded: “just shut up.”

Second, he squandered his moment of humility

Public relations advisors uniformly counsel their clients to exemplify humility, to reinforce their “humanness.” Humility, of course, has never been Donald Trump’s strong suit. But when he contracted COVID-19, the President seemed to experience an epiphany.

After entering Walter Reed Hospital, a tieless, subdued Trump addressed the American people on his new-found respect for and understanding of this deadly disease. He gratefully lauded his doctors and graciously thanked his friends and adversaries alike for their well-wishes. Finally, it appeared, Donald Trump had gotten religion.

And then he decided to take a joy ride. Specifically, Trump, still testing negative for COVID and a potential disease spreader, rather than staying put in his hospital room, commandeered his security staff to take him on a car ride around the hospital grounds to wave to his fans.

Again on cue, the nation’s stupefied cadre of Trump-bashing reporters seized the opportunity to underscore the President’s continuing failure to fear the contagious disease that he’d contracted; while swing voters grimaced and PR counselors gasped at one man’s uncanny, unconscious, continuing ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

Third, a disastrous first debate

The fundamental public relations advice going into that key first meeting with Joe Biden was at least to “follow the rules.” And we all know how that worked out.

All but the most rabid Trump boosters had to acknowledge that the President’s imbecilic, infantile, interfering display of bombast was likely the final, fatal straw for swing voters tired of the mind-bending, never-ending, self-imposed drama surrounding the nation’s 45th President.

And so, even with a stellar final debate performance, Donald Trump’s presidential goose appears to be cooked.

If so, it was Trump’s blatant lack of understanding about public relations and failure to accept more knowledgeable experts’ advice that caused him to blunder badly, sacrifice most of the good will his formidable administration accomplishments had gained with swing voters and lose an election that even with COVID, he could’ve—and should’ve—won.

Stated another way, to paraphrase yet another scholar whom Donald Trump has probably never listened to, “The fault, dear Donald, is not in your stars, but in yourself.”


Fraser P. Seitel has been a communications consultant, author and teacher for 40 years. He’s author of the Pearson text “The Practice of Public Relations,” now in its 14th edition, and co-author of “Rethinking Reputation” and “Idea Wise.” He may be reached directly at [email protected].