Six PR Lessons Learned from Maddow Tax Return & ‘Leak’, Trump-Media Wars

Rachel Maddow’s much-hyped tweet about her Trump tax return ‘scoop’ is just the latest skirmish in an ongoing PR war from which she has emerged badly wounded

The apparent “leak” of President Trump’s 2005 tax return, first reported by Rachel Maddow on MSNBC after she set off a social media frenzy by tweeting about the “scoop”, is just the latest example of the head-spinning PR wars being fought daily between the media, the Trump Administration and the countless behind-the-scenes power players all trying to control the country’s political discourse as well as its future.

While there is no proof of who leaked the tax return by leaving it in the mailbox of investigative financial journalist David Cay Johnston, my bet is on President Trump or someone very close to him who did it under his direction. It certainly fits Trump’s pattern of posting outrageous and provocative tweets, or shifting the timing of presidential announcements, executive orders or Supreme Court nominations to change the headlines and attempt to replace critical news coverage with some positive spin.

Trump also has a history of leaking material about himself when he thinks it’s in his interest and reportedly used to pose as his own spokesman in phone interviews to disseminate flattering information about himself. When I interviewed Trump about “The Apprentice” while working as a journalist at The Hollywood Reporter, he certainly sang his own praises, those of the show and the product placement fees paid by advertisers despite sliding ratings at the time.

Trump, through his obsession with the media, attempts to control what they report, and unrelenting attacks on their credibility, has demonstrated perhaps more than any other president in modern U.S. history how critical PR and managing your public image truly is to achieving success. And this, even in an era when the traditional media have lost an enormous amount of influence and control over the news and information that gets disseminated around the globe to social media, bloggers, countless digital media sites, hackers and unscrupulous producers of actual “fake news” for profit or propaganda purposes.

I’ve heard it said, especially by Trump supporters, that all press is good press, and while negative press did indeed help Trump get elected, it’s clear from his unrelenting efforts to control and discredit the media that positive press is far superior. As a former journalist for Reuters, AP and The Hollywood Reporter and Founder and CEO of AWAKEN PR, I have a deep understanding of both the media’s perspective and our clients’ need to manage their public images with positive publicity.

Having witnessed how the media was manipulated during the campaign and to a lesser extent the Trump presidency (though journalists have gotten much better at challenging and fact-checking Trump and rising to the urgent calling of serving as the fourth estate to protect U.S. democracy), the lessons for the media, the public and every individual, company or organization seeking success are clear.

1) The media, usually due to the nature of the “beast” – the instantaneous deadlines, pressure to produce ratings, clicks and stories that sell from their profit-seeking corporate bosses, and to scoop the competition which now could be almost anyone on the globe with Internet access — are too easily used as pawns by way more powerful people leaking information or trying to spin the story in one direction or another. In a perfect world, journalists would have the time to investigate and verify every piece of information conveyed to them, which they then report to the public. Just imagine if they had taken the time to investigate and dig deeper into the polling numbers they were reporting during the campaign; if they had questioned how pollsters were coming up with the numbers that consistently showed Hillary Clinton in the lead, or had taken the time to investigate Trump’s claims of hidden support in swing states and even traditionally blue states.

2) It seems quite clear that whoever leaked Trump’s alleged 2005 tax return did so to make Trump look good. All the potential conflicts of interest and details we really needed to see were missing from the two pages of the 1040 that Maddow revealed on her show Tuesday night. And apparently due to the pressure to produce ratings and promote her own brand, Maddow seriously over-exaggerated her “scoop” by tweeting, “BREAKING: We’ve got Trump tax returns. Tonight, 9pm ET. MSNBC. (Seriously).”

Even though she subsequently tweeted that the tax return was a 1040 from 2005, Maddow became a mockery all over social media, including among fellow journalists, and the butt of late-night TV jokes, damaging her own credibility as a serious journalist. Even the highly-respected super-intelligent Maddow became a pawn in the PR wars being waged daily by and with the Trump Administration. Even she needed some PR counsel.

3) Going on “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” and ignoring the social media outcry over her own misleading PR spin was not a smart move nor did it do much to restore her reputation. I would have liked to see her acknowledge the hype and apologize for it. Everyone makes mistakes but rather than owning up to it, Maddow’s decision to continue promoting the PR spin that she had achieved some enormous scoop with those two pages of a 12-year-old 1040 was quite self-serving and short-sighted. Explaining the pressures, circumstances and even caught-up-in-the-moment excitement that led to that tweet would have been the smarter way to go.

Rachel-Maddow-Tonight-Show
In an interview with the AP Thursday, Maddow continued to deny any journalistic faux pas, saying that if people felt let down by her tax return story it was more because of the weight of expectation than anything she did.

While Maddow did achieve that much-coveted ratings coup — more than 4 million viewers watcher her show Tuesday night, making it the biggest audience in her show’s nine years on the air and the second most-watched regular show ever on MSNBC — the damage to her previously stellar journalistic reputation was done. Clearly, Maddow has become the latest casualty in the daily battles of media manipulation, and she needs to admit the defeat to begin restoring her reputation.

4) With a White House led by a president who lies habitually confirming the authenticity of the tax return while calling it “totally illegal to steal and publish”, and Trump at the same time labeling the tax return as “fake news” on Twitter, it’s not even possible to know for certain if this 1040 is really Trump’s. It does seem quite likely that it is, however, especially because it certainly makes him look like he paid his fair share of taxes. That may very well be the reason he or someone close to him orchestrated the release of that one particular year and just those two particular pages of his 1040.

5) It is clear that everyone needs PR including the media themselves to build and manage their public image. In fact, the press needs PR like never before with their credibility at all-time lows and Trump constantly on the attack to discredit them and quash any criticism of his Administration. His Democracy-damaging diatribes against the media, who are working feverishly under constant threats and enormous pressure to serve the public interest, echo those of the world’s worst tyrants and have emboldened dictators around the world.

6) I acknowledge that this blog too is PR because as I said every single business, brand, nonprofit, organization, government agency and individual seeking to promote a positive public image that will translate into success, whether in governing, sales, brand building or social change, needs PR! It is invaluable to have a public relations agency like AWAKEN PR that understands the media, how they think and the pressures and constraints under which they operate. It makes us that much more effective in building and protecting your public image and your brand! Our journalism background also makes us highly qualified and extremely passionate about serving clients dedicated to bringing about positive change in the world through their businesses, organizations, nonprofits, startups, art and entertainment projects and other individual talents. For more information or a free consult, visit awakenpr.com or contact us here.

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