What PR pros can learn from Trump team’s spin on crowd estimates

The president and his reps offered ‘alternative facts’ to the widely reported meager inauguration attendance figures. The administration’s next moves evoked an even bigger uproar.


It’s only been a few days since President Donald Trump has been sworn into office, but his PR team is already working overtime.

Reports of relatively smaller crowds at Trump’s inauguration on Friday, in comparison to former inaugurations, quickly made the rounds and reportedly angered the newly installed president.

The situation grew more heated as reports that the “Women’s March,” a protest held in groups across the nation, drew more people in Washington, D.C., than the inauguration did.

CNN reported:

Aerial photos — a 2009 shot from Getty compared to 2017 shots from television broadcasts — show former President Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration appeared to draw a much larger crowd than the one at Trump’s inauguration, while Washington’s mass transit ridership and Nielsen television ratings also show Obama’s first inauguration was a larger draw.

A source told CNN that Trump was enraged about photographic comparisons of the two inaugurations. Trump publicly complained about media coverage of the size of his inauguration crowd during a visit to CIA headquarters Saturday. Hours later, Spicer followed suit in the White House briefing room, then left without taking questions.

In seeking to set the record straight, the Trump administration worsened its PR headache.

Here are two lessons communicators can take from the prickly response to Friday’s numbers:

1. Use PR spin at your own risk.

Trump lashed out at journalists and accused them of distorting the attendance figures:

The Guardian reported:

Trump’s press secretary, Sean Spicer, used his first White House briefing to shout at journalists about what he incorrectly termed “deliberately false reporting” on Trump’s inauguration, declaring: “We’re going to hold the press accountable.”

“This was the largest audience ever to witness an inauguration, period,” said Spicer, in one of several statements contradicted by photographs and transit data. “These attempts to lessen the enthusiasm of the inauguration are shameful and wrong.”

Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president, was later confronted by Chuck Todd on NBC’s “Meet the Press” about Spicer’s statements. Her reply was that Spicer “gave alternative facts” to the data and photographs shared in news reports:

The phrase “alternative facts” has been used mockingly in many news headlines and has become the subject of online derision from social media users.

PR pros should think twice about how they present details of a recent event or an executive’s move that has elicited backlash.

As Conway showed, putting spin on a negative piece of news by calling it a different name or changing the conversation can draw more attention to the situation—and bring people to question your organization’s credibility.

It’s best to face the situation head on—if you’re going to respond at all. PR pros might do well to remember that not every situation should involve a PR response; sometimes it’s best to let the news cycle move on to the next big thing.

2. Consumers’ content consumption behaviors are changing.

The numbers reported for live attendance and TV viewing for Friday’s inauguration might have been unimpressive, but the event broke the record for the most-watched news event online.

Akamai Technologies—the company behind video content for news outlets and other organizations around the world—said in a press release that the inauguration was the “largest single live news event that the company has delivered.”

Akamai explained:

Live video streaming of the Inauguration peaked at 8.7 Tbps at 12:04 p.m. ET during the opening of the President’s speech, exceeding the previous record of 7.5 Tbps set during Election Day coverage on the evening of November 8th, 2016. Akamai supported 4.6 million concurrent viewers of the Inauguration at peak on behalf of its leading broadcaster customers.

The Washington Times reported:

[Akamai’s] measurements are precise. The coverage reached a peak of 8.7 terabytes per second at 12:04 p.m. ET during the opening of the president’s speech, exceeding the previous record of 7.5 terabytes — Tbps — set during Election Day coverage in November. And what the heck is a terabyte? The term refers to a data transmission rate equivalent to 1,000 gigabytes — or 1,000,000,000,000 bytes — per second. In terms of an audience, that measurement translates into 4.6 million people watching the streaming coverage — about what ABC and CBS garnered during the same time period.

In comparison, President Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration reached 1.1 Tbps, and the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton reached 1.3 Tbps—well under the 8.7 Tbps of Trump’s inauguration.

What does this mean for PR pros? Consumers’ preferred communications channels are changing, and brand managers would be wise to change with them.

If your media relations campaign is continuing to decline, an overhaul on your organization’s newsroom—with a focus on brand journalism and engaging content—might be in order. Want to reach younger consumers? Look beyond traditional tactics such as direct mail and move to social media platforms (specifically messaging apps). Changing your tactics to suit your audience’s behaviors and current trends can boost your ROI and ensure that you’re keeping pace with industry best practices.

Remember, though: Be honest.

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