You may never have heard of Ron Klain, but he has long been a fixture in the political operations of the Clintons, Obamas, and Al Gore. If you have seen the HBO movie “Recount” about the 2000 presidential election recount fight in Florida, he is the main Democrat portrayed so well by Kevin Spacey.
Klain knows the rules of political scandals, well at least the pre-Trump rules. In this fascinating Politico piece, he outlines the old rules Trump has rewritten. You know, things like get your facts straight, never explain and always apologize.
I just wonder if these rules will work for anyone other than Trump or are we going to see a wave of imitators destroyed by trying to follow in his footprints.
Here is what Klain had to say:
Politico — As someone who served as an adviser to the Hillary Clinton campaign, I fundamentally disagree with everything that Trump stood for on the trail. But it would be foolish to ignore how often his tactics were effective. The president-elect refused to release his tax returns; he’s been accused of sexually harassing numerous women; and he’s likely to take office on January 20 without having divested his business interests. How did he get away with it?
Trump saw a change in the political landscape that many others failed to see; and everyone from political strategists to corporate communicators to those in the media would do well to pay attention. If they want to survive controversies in the future, they’ll want to study these five core postulates of Trump’s new crisis management playbook.
Old Rule: Never explain
New Rule: Always arm allies with an explanation
The “never explain” rule goes back to Ronald Reagan, who said “if you are explaining, you are losing.” The basic idea is this: If you have an unpleasant action to defend, once you start explaining it, you have lost. Instead, you must brush past the problem, apologize for it (see below) or counter-attack in the face of it—but never “explain” it.
But the Trump campaign came to understand that in today’s communications environment—where social interactions between supporters and their friends and neighbors (via Twitter, Facebook or old fashioned face-to-face conversations) are critical—a campaign’s advocates must be armed with “explanations” for their candidate’s actions. The Trump campaign thus replaced the “never explain” rule with a determination to always explain his statements and deeds, no matter how inexplicable they might seem. Trump was refusing to release his tax return because he was “under audit.” The comments on the Access Hollywood tape were “locker room talk.” His statement supporting the invasion of Iraq could be disregarded because it was made on Howard Stern, as a sort of joke that he “said very lightly.” Never mind that these explanations did not satisfy fact-checkers or the media; never mind that they ranged from outright false to downright ridiculous. The point is that Trump supporters were armed with an explanation that they accepted and that enabled them to defend their candidate in the face of withering attacks.
The lesson is an important one: In a world where social communications (digital and otherwise) are dominant and also seen as more “credible” than mass media, you must arm your network of allies with explanations if you want them to play offense on your behalf.
Old Rule: Apologize and move on
New Rule: Never apologize and double down
At the heart of the old set of rules was a basic idea: Everyone makes mistakes; when you do, offer a heartfelt apology, and then try to move on. Apologizing has become so widespread in crisis communications that pundits analyze corporate apologies each year to praise the most effective ones. In the 2016 campaign, Hillary Clinton apologized for over a dozen things, ranging from her 1996 use of the word “super-predator,” to her 2002 vote in support of the Iraq War, to her 2009 decision to use a private email server at the State Department, to her 2016 use of the phrase “basket of deplorables.”
Trump, by contrast, almost never apologized in 2016. Not for attacking John McCain, a heroic POW. Not for belittling a beauty queen. Not for besmirching a Gold Star family. Not for calling immigrants “rapists.” Not for urging supporters to beat up dissenters at rallies. And not for about 100 other things that “best practice” communications advice would say that someone absolutely, positively must apologize for. And not only did Trump refuse to apologize for these many errors, insults or mistakes, he often doubled down on attacks or controversial comments, re-upping his remarks with renewed intensity or further elaboration.
Many observers wrote off Trump’s refusal to apologize as stubbornness, but perhaps it reflects a mindful strategy born from our apology-heavy communications culture. In a world awash in apologies, so commonly offered by politicians, corporations and authorities, perhaps saying “I’m sorry” seems trite and tired. The Trump campaign may have grasped a new reality that apologies today often seem insincere, inauthentic and ineffective. “Sorry I’m not sorry” is a popular saying on social media today: It’s a message Trump embraced and made his own in 2016.
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