Bill McGowanBill McGowan

Presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump had different reactions to the terrorism that struck Begium Tuesday, Clinton expressing deep sympathy and calling for teamwork while Trump focused on the need to protect Americans and the prospect of such incidents in the U.S. --by Bill McGowan, Founder and CEO, Clarity Media Group

Ever since President Franklin Roosevelt declared to the American people in the wake of Pearl Harbor that “the only thing we have to fear, is fear itself,” the communication skills of world leaders amidst crisis has been the source of intense scrutiny.

Executed effectively, the tone and content of public declarations can serve to calm and reassure a jittery public. Think Rudy Giuliani on September 11th. Executed poorly, they can intensify an already-high level of anxiety. Think Alexander Haig on the day President Ronald Reagan was shot.

In the waning months of Barack Obama’s presidency, more and more attention is shifting away from him to how his prospective successors react when terror violently erupts around the world.

Clinton’s statement following Tuesday’s bombings in Belgium that took at least 34 lives contained all the vital elements: an expression of sympathy for the victims and the people of Belgium. In any tragedy, expressing one’s sorrow is a critical component of any crisis communications strategy – it cannot be overlooked. But Trump did, focusing almost exclusively on Americans’ safety.

Trump Played to Fear, Clinton to Needed Teamwork

Trump’s media hits in the aftermath project extreme pessimism and play to voter’s fears, calling Paris and Brussels “just the beginning.” And to underscore a sense of futility and hopelessness he said, “We’re going to get worse and worse,” adding “this is going to happen in the United States.”

Hillary’s statement, by sharp contrast, seized on two separate opportunities to project conviction and confidence over the outcome of the struggle against ISIS: “Their campaign of hate and fear will not succeed,” a sentiment she reiterated a couple of sentences later. 

Another point of distinction between the candidates involves their respective egos. Clinton spoke of teamwork and solidarity between America and its European allies and the need to “strengthen our resolve and stand together.” She made the conscious decision to overtly leave politics out of the equation. Clinton needs to cut down on shouting. That can lead to her getting hoarse at the end of a big primary day. Americans are tired of being shouted at. Trump should also cut down on shouting although his base is a disaffected group of voters who live vicariously through his rants. He is effectively scratching their hostile itch.

Trump’s approach after the Brussels bombings was different. As is his style, he sought to inject himself into the conversation with lines like, “I’m a pretty good prognosticator. Just watch what happens over the years, it won’t be pretty.” Then he established a direct connection between people’s fear over their safety and his political good fortunes, speculating that his calls to ban Muslims from entering the U.S. were what is fueling his popularity: “It’s at least a small part of the reason why I’m the number one frontrunner,” he said.

Trump Must Expand His Audience

Doubling down on fearmongering and racist statements will certainly play well to Trump’s base supporters. But that’s not whom he needs to appeal to now. Those loyal supporters aren’t going anywhere. Trump is their guy regardless of what happens. For Trump to have a chance in November, now is the time to sound more reasoned and thoughtful, so that voters who are opposed to him might see him through a fresh lens.

Trump needs to adapt his speaking style in such a way that voters on the fence say, “maybe he’s not such a dangerous head case after all.” The question that remains to be answered is, does Trump have the self awareness and self control needed to change his public speaking stripes? In times of crisis and mayhem like this, people want their leaders to project certainty over an eventual positive outcome, not to predict worsening gloom and doom.

But the optimism cannot be pie-in-the-sky talking points. For Clinton, she needs to draw on her years of experience and knowledge at the State Department to provide some credible details that are giving her cause for optimism. Otherwise she runs the risk of being seen as all rhetoric and no action, a label that would spell trouble for her against an opponent like Trump.

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Bill McGowan is founder and CEO of the Clarity Media Group based in New York with offices also in San Francisco, Silicon Valley, Los Angeles and Singapore. He produced and reported more than 700 nationally televised stories, working for ABC News 20/20; CBS News 48 Hours, Public Eye with Bryant Gumbel, Dow Jones TV and MSNBC. He is the author of Pitch Perfect: How to Say It Right the First Time, Every Time published by Harper Collins in 2014 and translated in 12 languages.