PR lessons from the Trump trial: A tale of two mavericks

by | Jun 5, 2024 | Public Relations

There were important lessons that PR practitioners should learn and remember from the trial of former President Donald J. Trump, some of which relate to my almost 25 years at Burson-Marsteller (now BCW), 10 years at Arthur Cantor/Advance Public Relations, at that time a respected national and international agency, and a couple of years at Earle Associates, a boutique political agency, where I worked on local, statewide and Presidential campaigns (the latter two agencies ceased operating after their founders died).

The nexus that is most common between me and Mr. Trump is that we both, as Frank Sinatra sang “did it my way.”

At Burson, I was considered a maverick for several reasons:

  • Instead of playing it safe by using traditional PR tactics, I always attempted to use “outside the box” strategies when crafting and implementing a program. Mr. Trump also dumped the traditional political playbook and did it his way.
  • I gained loyalty from account people who reported to me because of the way I treated them (more on this later). Donald Trump also gained loyalty from many people who worked for him, as was evidenced by witnesses at his trial and Allen Weisselberg, the former chief financial officer of the Trump Organization, who is in jail for perjuring himself while trying to protect Trump (more on this later).

But mainly the nexus between me and the former president showed we took different roads:

  • Unlike Trump, I never discarded people who reported to me after their usefulness to accounts I managed or played key roles on was over. I always found them work on other accounts.
  • Unlike Trump, who would belittle and threaten people who did not agree with his views, I never threatened account handlers who reported to me. Instead, unlike most managers at Burson, who acted more like Mr. Trump, I would roll up my sleeves and try to help an account handler solve the problem and right a program.
  • The New York Times reported in an article after Trump was elected in 201: “Mr. Bloomberg, according to the people briefed on the call, told him that when he was first elected mayor in 2001, he, too, had never served in government. What Mr. Trump should do, Mr. Bloomberg advised, was to ‘hire a lot of people smarter than you.’ ‘Mike,’ Mr. Trump replied tersely, ‘there is no one smarter than me.’ A startled Mr. Bloomberg paused before turning the conversation to a less fraught subject: golf.” 

I never assumed I was the smartest person in the room and listened carefully as others expressed opinions, which I often weaved into my approach to public relations.

  • Fact checkers have shown that Mr. Trump lied well more than 1000 times. I never lied or misled a reporter, unlike many PR practitioners (more on this later).

Below are the takeaways from the above that PR people should remember:

  • After leaving Burson to start my own consultancy, I never had to solicit accounts. Instead, people who reported to me would give me continuous project work; so would former clients. Lesson to remember: Be nice to people. Not being nice to people (as Mr. Trump was to Michael Cohen) can result in a reporter blacklisting you, or a former person you managed preventing you from getting an account.
  • By not lying or misleading reporters, I gained their trust, which led to them contacting me for comments to be included in their stories as well as their always being receptive to story suggestions, benefiting both me and my clients. Lesson to remember: Establishing good relations with journalists is essential for having them help you when you need a favor.
  • Always tell the truth to reporters and legal authorities. Lies have a way of leading to negative publicity for clients, and serious consequences for you. Lesson to remember: Not telling the truth resulted in Allen Weisselberg being sentenced to jail, and to Donald Trump being convicted of a felony.

The Trump trial saga is over for the moment. It’s certain that there will be other lessons to remember from Mr. Trump’s actions in the future that apply to our business. But in the meantime, remember those that emanated from this trial.

Arthur Solomon
Arthur Solomon, a former journalist, was a senior VP/senior counselor at Burson-Marsteller, and was responsible for restructuring, managing and playing key roles in some of the most significant national and international sports and non-sports programs. He also traveled internationally as a media adviser to high-ranking government officials. He now is a frequent contributor to public relations publications, consults on public relations projects and was on the Seoul Peace Prize nominating committee. He has been a key player on Olympic marketing programs and also has worked at high-level positions directly for Olympic organizations. During his political agency days, he worked on local, statewide and presidential campaigns. He can be reached at arthursolomon4pr (at) juno.com.


5 effective PR strategies for small businesses in 2024

5 effective PR strategies for small businesses in 2024

Small businesses might have the impression that there’s no need to worry about having a PR strategy—if you build it they will come, and all that. But the reality is that this is just as much a part of being profitable whether you’re operating on a local scale or...