PR lessons from Trump’s CNN Town Hall—some good ones, some bad

by | May 23, 2023 | Public Relations

I’ve long said that PR people can learn valuable lessons free of charge that are not taught in communications school, especially by following happenings on the political scene. And politics aside, former President Donald Trump’s appearance on CNN’s Town Hall provided many of those lessons—some good ones, some bad ones.

Below are several that people in our business should add to their “know it” book.

The positive lessons:

1. Mr. Trump said he knew the moderator, Kaitlin Collins. He probably agreed to having her as the interviewer because he believed he could overwhelm her.

The lesson: PR people should always make certain when arranging an interview that the reporter isn’t a “got ya” headline seeking journalist.

2. Trump had a definite agenda. 

The lesson: Prior to the interview PR people should help the client select talking points to be made during the interview.

3. Because of the Town Hall format, Mr. Trump successfully was able to connect with the audience.

The lesson: PR people should always arrange interviews with reporters who write for publications that the client is attempting to reach.

4. The Town Hall presented Mr. Trump with the opportunity to tell his version of the story and he didn’t let questions from Ms. Collins divert him from doing so. 

The lesson: Clients being interviewed should be told to disregard questions that they don’t like and, like all politicians, answer those questions with prepared comments containing positive talking points.

The negative lessons:

1. Mr. Trump seemed not to be prepared to answer certain questions.

The lesson: It is essential for public figures to anticipate questions that will be asked and be prepared to answer them. For high level national interviews, PR people should consider hiring a former investigative journalist to act as the interviewer during pre-interview media training.

2. Mr. Trump responded to a question that he didn’t like by answering with a joke. 

The lesson: Not answering a serious question seriously should be a “no no” and PR clients should warn clients that one flippant answer can destroy what otherwise would be a successful interview.

3. Mr. Trump referred to Ms, Collins as “nasty.” 

The lesson: PR people should prepare opposition ads for Mr. Trump showing how his opponents can turn the “nasty” comment into anti-Trump TV commercials.

Perhaps the most positive aspect of Mr. Trump’s CNN Town Hall was that he demonstrated that he was a young 76 and was still as sharp as he was when he initially ran for president in 2016.

His biggest mistake was not using the Town Hall to reach a non-Trump audience. Instead, he still played to his base, which wasn’t big enough to elect him to a second term in 2020.

Below is my opinion of the Town Hall:

CNN missed a big opportunity to present itself as the premier hard news cable channel. Instead, the Town Hall was the sorriest journalistic political programming of the year to date. CNN admitted that it deliberately filled the “auditorium with citizens representing a range of conservative views.”

And despite her best efforts, Mr. Trump steamrolled Ms. Collins who was no match for the mud-wrestling style of the former president. I also fault Ms. Collins for not insisting that Mr. Trump answer her questions before moving on to other ones.

CNN has three hard-hitting journalists that have successfully gone toe-to-toe with Mr. Trump in the past—Chris Wallace, Jim Acosta and Jake Tapper. Any one of the three would have been a better choice than Ms. Collins, although it’s possible that Mr. Trump would not have agreed to the Town Hall if one of the three was the inquisitor.

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.