It wasn’t a dream. It really happened! The US presidential election between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton is in the books, and what a sordid tale of woe it was.
I don’t personally know anyone who predicted the outcome with more accuracy than “you know, Trump could win this thing.” In such an unconventional election, prognostication proved futile.
As a communications professional, I view elections as a series of public relations strategies and tactics. Event planning? Check. Speech writing? Check. Media relations? Check. Online community engagement of rabidly partisan zealots? Double check!
Obviously, the goal of a campaign is to win; some might say to win at all costs. However, the definition of “at all costs” has never been so literal, and the strategic communications work employed to win has never been so dark.
Ethical dilemmas & existential angst
Right around election time, I was fortunate to speak to students at McGill University in Montreal about ethics in social media, and at Humber College in Toronto about socially responsible communications. As I prepared, a nagging concern kept popping up in my mind. I came to realize that one of the biggest casualties in the war of attrition between Trump and Clinton might be the idea that PR must be ethical to be effective.
I’ve decided to put myself (and you) in the uncomfortable shoes of a theoretical, “ethically flexible” PR practitioner to see how such a person might be emboldened by a few of the more egregious tactics from the campaign trail. The big question is this: If the communications takeaways from the planet’s most important election indicate that “the end justifies the means”, could the logical case for PR ethics be dead?
Unethical PR tactic 1: Anonymous attacks
This campaign was rife with online sock puppetry. A sock puppet is an anonymous social media user pretending to share personal opinions, but actually affiliated (paid or volunteer) with an organization with a vested interest.
Generally, sock puppets parrot speaking points or act as “trolls” to derail conversations. The more sophisticated ones engage in concern trolling, surreptitiously chipping away at their opponents’ logic and confidence bit-by-bit.
Analysis of social media during the election tells us that a large percentage of online chatter originated from a small number of accounts. Of those, I’d posit that the anonymous ones are mostly sock puppets. If they tweet full-time about one thing, it’s probably their job.
Identifying a sock puppet can be done by studying when their account was created, who they follow, who follows them, and what they talk about (real people comment on diverse, unrelated topics.) Or, you can do what I do and just block all anonymous users.
Unethical PR lesson 1: Accountability is for losers. Winners wage anonymous war on those with differing viewpoints.
Unethical PR tactic 2: Shameless identity politics
You’d never know that either Clinton or Trump wanted to be a president of the whole country. Both campaigns cynically segmented Americans along demographic lines and pandered to the ones they liked, while ignoring those they didn’t.
Clinton loaded her speeches with buzzwords aimed at Black, female, Latino, LGBT, and immigrant voters. To me, this seemed artificial and insincere, with messages constructed from a mishmash of sometimes contradictory statements that “polled well” with each demographic group. When Clinton called half of Trump voters “deplorables”, some of her own supporters probably thought “Hmm, could that be what she thinks about me, too?”
Meanwhile, despite his bombast and hyperbole, Trump managed to target white, male, blue-collar voters (and their families and friends) without mentioning that group by name. He set himself up as a champion for “all Americans”… so long as you hate the same things he hates. His approach was also a contrivance, reverse-engineered from Breitbart News and The Blaze, but it was perceived as more authentic than Clinton’s.
Everything about Trump as a business man indicates he profits from eroding middle class wages. Meanwhile, if Clinton actually valued disenfranchised Americans, she probably would have served as Secretary of Labour, or Health and Human Services, or Housing and Urban Development, instead of the high-profile Secretary of State.
Identifying stakeholder groups isn’t unethical, but using them, lying to them, and pitting them against one another is.
Unethical PR lesson 2: Target. Pander. Rinse. Repeat.
Tactic 3: Libel & slander & lies (oh my!)
In a society as litigious as the United States, I’m blown away by how Trump could so blatantly defame Clinton at every opportunity, both verbally (slander) and in writing (libel.) Every time Trump called Clinton a criminal, he gambled that she wouldn’t sue, as he certainly would have were the situation reversed.
I can only assume Clinton’s decision not to fight back was a combination of not wanting to appear weak, believing voters would see past the attacks, and perhaps having too many legitimate skeletons in her closet to be able to defend her reputation in civil court. In any event, Trump’s gambit paid off “bigly” … er, “big league”.
Trump’s relentless, chaotic style also emboldened so-called “alternative right” supporters, who ported over a bevy of ugly manners and terminology from 4Chan to mainstream social media like Twitter and Facebook. The alt-right routinely mocked “social justice warriors” and “libtards” while labeling moderate conservatives as “cucks”, as in cuckolds blinded by political correctness while liberals have their way with the country.
Trump and the alt-right (arguably/ironically a politically correct moniker for modern white supremacists) acted in tandem, playing off each other’s energy. Trump could retweet alt-right accounts occasionally yet claim he doesn’t fully agree with them. In return, his campaign supplied his supporters with a myriad of populist sound bites and hashtags. Who can forget gems like #CrookedHillary, #DrainTheSwamp, and #MAGA?
By the way, the catchphrase “Make America Great Again” is such a lazy, thinly-veiled rehash of the tired, old rallying call for white people to “take the USA back from them”, whomever “they” are. Ugh! But I digress …
Unethical PR lesson 3: If your opponent won’t punch back, exploit that as weakness and attack mercilessly. Oh, and don’t forget the #hashtag!
Time to Embrace the Dark Side?
If these lessons resonate with even a small portion of communicators, there is reason to worry. And why wouldn’t they resonate? The results speak for themselves, and nothing along the way during the campaign indicated that the voting public cared one iota about being communicated with ethically. Folks on all sides were satisfied to blame, shame, and defame their opponents rather than demand policy answers.
Human nature may partially explain the “us vs them” spark within each of us, but during this election, cynical PR activities fanned the flame, threw fuel on the fire, and created a towering inferno of distraction, suspicion, anger, and fear.
I can’t even fathom how many PR strategists were working at various levels during this election, following their presidential candidates’ lead and contemptuously flaunting and mocking ethical best practices. Hundreds? Thousands? And the entire planet was watching. We’d be naïve to think this doesn’t have an effect on the future of our industry.
So could the US election be a nail in the coffin for ethical public relations?
The answer is yes, there is reason to believe this experience could justify the removal of ethics as key priority for public relations …
… unless we take a stand and don’t let it go down that way.
… unless we call out our fellow colleagues’ ethical lapses.
… unless we condemn the use of defamation and bullying.
… unless we eschew anonymity in favour of accountability.
… unless we help our clients see that there are better ways.
… unless we say push back when our bosses say “do what it takes”.
… unless we further professionalize PR and enforce our codes of ethics.
… unless we put morality ahead of power and profit.
… unless we refuse to accept the current state of affairs as “the new normal”.
… unless we set a better example for the next generation of practitioners.
All of those conditions need to be met if the ethical approach to PR that so many of us believe in can rebound and flourish. If we don’t demand honesty, fairness, and respect from our organizations’ communications, no one else will.
I’ll probably get flack (no pun intended) for suggesting that moral relativism could lead public relations into mass ethical regression. But we must remember that our industry was born out of propaganda, and that it’s only through decades of hard work and vigilance that we’ve grown beyond those origins. Recent events have placed us back at a crossroads, and we must make a concerted effort not to turn down the unethical path that has been newly repaved by this election.
Safe travels. Be careful out there!