Assessing Trump’s and Clinton’s Public Relations Efforts: Implications for Practice

The recent inauguration of President Donald Trump marked a historic transition when someone with no political experience now occupies arguably the most powerful position in the world. In explaining the unexpected outcome of the election, many pundits credited Trump’s communication effectiveness and ability to directly “reach the people.”

However, this may be an overly simplified explanation. What is undeniable is that public relations played a key part during the 2016 Election. A comparison of the two major candidates’ public relations efforts along the lines of media relations, donor relations, volunteer relations, and social media engagement yield interesting results and some important implications for practitioners.

For media relations, Trump was the winner as he dominated television and print news coverage in terms of volume by a wide margin, according to data from IQ Media and The Data Face. Although Clinton received slightly more favorable coverage overall, the disparity in volume was much greater in Trump’s favor and his use of social media may have countered the negative discussion in traditional news (see below).

For donor relations, Clinton was the clear winner. She accumulated $497,808,791 during the campaign versus Trump’s $247,541,449, according to OpenSecrets.org. This translated into a major advantage in terms of resources to spend and consequently she outspent Trump in terms of advertising at a rate of $332,100,000 versus $18,700,000.

Clinton also held an advantage in terms of volunteer relations. She had nearly double the number of offices in nationally. According to FiveThirtyEight.com, Clinton had 489 offices compared to Trump’s 207.

Trump was perhaps best known for his use of social media during the campaign and he seemed to hold a decisive advantage in this arena compared to Clinton. Data from the Pew Center last summer showed that Trump’s social media posts received the highest level of response from users. It is notable that Trump linked to news media in his posts more than other candidates who linked more to their own website. This strategy may have been effective in limiting the tone advantage Clinton had in terms of news coverage.

It is important to note that different messaging platforms create distinct advantages in political discourse. A research team based out of the University of Florida that I coordinate has conducted a program of research in recent years studying such comparisons. For example, among the major goals of political public relations messages can be to dominate what topics are discussed, how those topics are discussed, and what elements are associated together when those topics are discussed.

According the multiple studies completed by the team, the best platforms for increasing the importance of topics in political news coverage are blogs, news releases, twitter messages, and television ads. For shaping how topics are by discussed by emphasizing certain aspects over others, news releases are most influential. Finally, for linking elements together in messages, blogs, Facebook messages, Google+ posts, email, and press briefings are most influential. Such findings can help guide message platform selection decisions in political campaigning and governing.

Since the election and now as he has transitioned into the Oval Office, President Trump continues to defy convention concerning his public relations and communications strategy. The impact of these strategies on policymaking and public opinion remains unknown but will no doubt continue to be unexpected in the future.


Dr. Spiro Kiousis is executive associate dean for the College of Journalism and Communications and is a professor of public relations. Previously, he served as chair of the Department of Public Relations from 2006-2012, was director of distance education for the College from 2010-2013, and was a University of Florida Research Foundation Professor from 2009-2011. Follow him on Twitter @skiousis.

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One Comment

  1. I appreciate your thoughtful assessment, Spiro. As a political moderate (which I believe is where most serious PR practitioners need to be to lead clients and senior execs to decisions that are right for the organization as well as its constituents), it seems to me the most important element overlooked by pundits who oversimplify Trump’s victory still isn’t mentioned above. That is to say, no communications effort can work if the audience isn’t open to it. Trump, in the words of one of my former bosses, was “pushing through an open door.”

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