The 2016 presidential election was a squeaker. But the contest for airtime, ink and clicks was a landslide for Donald Trump.
The irresistibility of Donald Trump for editors, producers, bloggers and Twitters dramatically shifted the election in ways that will be discussed for decades in future political communications classes. The high volumes of clicks and ratings that the president-elect generated gave way to a self-renewing cycle of free, unrelenting publicity, or “earned media” in industry parlance. And for a campaign that trailed its rival in fundraising and advertising buys, the ceaseless generosity from the media turned out to be a huge boon for Trump.
From July 2015 to the end of October, Trump received $5.6 billion worth of earned media, including stories, TV and radio news segments, blog posts, podcasts and social media mentions, according to media tracking firm Mediaquant. In October alone, he had $58 million of coverage.
Despite being the first female nominee of a major political party, Hillary Clinton paled in comparison, generating only $3.5 billion worth of earned media during the 15-month period. Trump’s closest rival during the Republican primary, Ted Cruz, received $447 million of total earned media during the period, Mediaquant says.
“She was always trying to catch up to Trump’s earned media,” he says.
As the campaigns headed for the home stretch, Clinton was able to narrow Trump’s lead in earned media, coming within 10%. But “she never quite pulled it off,” Senatori said.
The media understandably gravitates to newsmakers. And the former reality TV star with an unfiltered Twitter account, projecting an overt appeal to white nativism, is a story few can resist. But Trump’s media skills were also underestimated, says Renee Wilson, president of PR Council, a trade group of public relations firms.
“With PR, it’s all about authenticity,” she said. “What you saw is what you’ve got. He wasn’t pretending to be polished or presidential.”
Targeting disaffected voters in the Rust Belt states, he crafted consistent messaging and “kept hammering it,” she says.
“He’s very outspoken and at times, a crude individual,” she said. “But he was micro-targeting. He was using behavioral science to get into the heads of voters.”
That he was a known quantity helped. “He came to the table with an audience,” Senatori says. “He didn’t have to play catch-up.”
The proliferation of social and online media, bedroom bloggers, and the “echo effect” they engendered broadened Trump’s media exposure, Senatori says. Once stories about Trump were covered by larger media organizations, the reactions and aggregations by smaller news operations took on a life of their own. “There’s no filter. No fact-checking. The amplification factor is huge,” Senatori says. “They don’t have the editorial oversight that traditional media has. They go with the soundbite.”
In exploiting the free media available to him so adroitly, Trump also revealed new strategies that may be employable in the future. “He gave a bit of a wake-up for call for the media,” Senatori says. “There’s a chance that we’re going see this type of candidate who can get around the media.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY on November 11, 2016.
(Photo: Jorge Saenz, AP)