by Tim Dewald

January 13, 2021

I am assuming many of you, like me, were left speechless for hours, glued to a screen, watching events unfold at the Capitol Building on Wednesday, January 6. It was surreal, and frightening, to see images of places so core to our democracy defiled by a mob.

During these events, both President-elect Joe Biden and President Trump stepped in front of a camera to address the nation – and that’s where the similarities end. Each approached this pivotal moment in our nation’s history differently, making several distinct choices that are worth evaluating on the basis of their effectiveness as communication strategies.

Before you say it, I recognize the quixotic nature of this pursuit. President Trump is not a “let’s find the middle ground” kind of individual. But rarely do you get to see side-by-side comparison at such a high level, two entirely different philosophies on communication. Let’s take a look at a few ways in which they contrasted, how their decisions ultimately played, and see if there are lessons to be learned.

Messaging

I’m not here to change your political persuasion, but to put it succinctly, speeches are opportunities to persuade. Persuasion is best accomplished by crafting a clear, compelling argument. Take a look for yourself when it comes to each of their speeches and see who puts together something resembling a cohesive argument.

President Trump adopted a clear mixed message – allying with those occupying the Capitol and even ad-libbing a profession of love, but asking they “go home in peace.” You can argue his comments earlier in the day were, while a much clearer message, even more contradictory.

In contrast, President-elect Biden drew a clear line labeling the behavior at the Capitol as “an insurrection.” He also appealed for unity, which has been a key message of his since the start of his campaign. When you consider the unprecedented nature of the events that day, the ability to stay on message is pretty remarkable.

This kind of consistency is incredibly important. It’s harder than ever to grab attention in the ever-expanding media marketplace. Do your homework and understand what your key messages are. Practice them. Be able to say them six different ways targeted for different stakeholders and audiences.

Live or prerecorded

President-elect Biden opted to deliver live remarks during a previously scheduled press conference to members of the media, while President Trump prerecorded a message and posted it on Twitter.

Almost immediately, social media companies cracked down on the President’s messaging, first suspending him from platforms and later banning him outright. Reasonable people can debate the substance of these decisions, but not their authority to do so. In self-publishing, President Trump ceded control of the medium, which is the exact opposite of what you would expect and likely not what he and his advisors intended.

In prerecording, he also ceded control in any course correction on messaging. His canned comments couldn’t be easily moderated, softened or changed in real time where live remarks can in the form of a Q&A or the classic “reading the room.”

We talk a lot about control in our media trainings. For me, it is the difference maker in terms of an interview being a success or something resembling a roll of the dice. You might think opting for a prerecorded message would afford the President the most control of his message, giving him the greatest chance of success, but that is far from the way the day played out.

Want to talk about your media strategy? Feel free to reach out.