PUBLIC RELATIONS

What You Can Learn From Donald Trump About Public Relations

The opinionated, conflict-welcoming real estate magnate is famous for turning publicity into money. Can you too?
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Just the other week, New York's attorney general filed a civil lawsuit against Donald Trump and accused him and his Trump University of engaging in "persistent fraudulent, illegal, and deceptive conduct." According to The New York Times, the suit seeks restitution of at least $40 million for the 5,000 people across the country (600 New Yorkers among them) who were coaxed into "paying for a series of expensive courses that did not deliver on their promises." Trump, of course, denied all the allegations, and, according to the Times, accused the attorney general of being a "political hack looking to get publicity."

So is Donald Trump a crook? Did he really dupe 5,000 people out of their money? I don't know the man personally. But I'd take a guess that he is no more a crook than any other businessman, big or small. Either way, he is definitely getting what he deserves: attention. Donald Trump loves publicity even if it means doing outlandish things--like supporting Miley Cyrus. He is not afraid of giving his opinion. He welcomes conflict and invites his enemies to attack him so he can attack back. This is a big part of his fame, his notoriety, his business model.

Smaller-Scale Owners Make Convictions Part of Their Business Model Too

I have a client who runs a landscaping business. He is also Catholic and proud of it. How do I know? Oh, there's a giant crucifix hanging on the wall in his reception area. And as you walk around his office, it's hard not to also notice certain religious placards and signs hanging from the walls reminding you that "Jesus died for your sins,' or that "He is coming." Spend more than 10 minutes in conversation and you'll inevitably find him referring to his church or the Lord. He is a good man and proud of his beliefs. I envy his conviction and his purpose. But is this the right kind of behavior in the workplace? For a landscaper?

In my neighborhood there is a well-known delicatessen. The owner, a family man in his early 40s, recently campaigned to fill an open spot on the township's board of commissioners. He is a Republican. We are in a heavily Democratic district. His face was on billboards and in the local newspaper. He tirelessly spoke to community groups. Everyone of course knew that he was the owner of the popular deli; in fact, he spoke proudly of his business and his experience as assets that would help him do a good job on the board. Campaign signs hung prominently behind the cash register. But the deli owner narrowly lost the election. And he also lost business. I know this for a fact. I overheard the conversations from others who refused to eat there anymore because they disagreed with his political ideas. (In my opinion, the overcooked roast beef would've been enough of a reason.)

I wouldn't be surprised if my Catholic friend also turned off a few customers. I'm sure there are people who would prefer not to do business with someone who makes his religion such a prominent part of his persona.

Which brings me back to Donald Trump. He's a character for sure. But I personally don't think he's a crook. He is, that said, guilty of having opinions. Maybe it's purely for political reasons. Maybe it's to feed his ego. But having controversial opinions has certainly garnered him national attention. It's added to his brand. It's increased the value of his assets. And I'm certain his prestige, fame, and rich reputation have helped him get in doors, negotiate better deals, or at least get him better seats at baseball games. So why don't we all do the same? Why don't you, as business people, project your opinions and your personal beliefs onto your businesses more often--like my landscaper friend and the deli owner?

How Personal Beliefs Mix With Business

There can be many upsides for doing this. If potential customers agree with your points of view then you may very well create stronger bonds with them. You know, peas in a pod stick together or something like that. And even if a customer doesn't entirely agree with you, he may still be won over by your tenacity, devotion, and dedication to what you believe in. And who's going to argue with someone who stands by his commitment to his religion, God, the American way, apple pie, moral values, or hard work? "Anyone with this kind of value system in his personal life must be a good person to do business with too," one might say.

In a world where consumers are buried in noise from advertisers and big companies, isn't it nice to find someone who stands out? Why would I not do business with this guy? I may not completely agree with his religion or his politics but I like his style. I like his confidence.  I like his willingness to put himself out there for what he believes. I bet the deli owner and the Catholic guy have won over many new customers because of this. They've created their own personas in their own little world, just like Donald Trump has been doing on a larger scale.

However, this type of behavior is not without its drawbacks. Donald Trump has been accused of being a crook by New York's attorney general. He also takes a hell of a lot of abuse from late night comedians, bloggers, Rosie O'Donnell, pundits, and anyone else who opposes him (or at least wants to piggy back off his fame). And I'm sure, like the deli owner, this has cost him business. And I'm sure his attitude has probably cost him another asset: people. There are likely many smart, productive, and potentially profitable people that would be loathe to work for him. I doubt Barbara Streisand, for example, would perform at a Trump venue. I don't think Donald Trump could count on George Soros as a potential investor in a future endeavor. On a smaller scale, I know for a fact that my Catholic business-owner-friend has lost a few employees because they were uncomfortable with his "open-invitation" prayer meetings he held in the office every morning, or his pleas to contribute to his Catholic charities, deserving as they may be.

When Your Personal Belief System Should Overlap With Your Professional Life

Should you be like Donald Trump? The landscaper? The deli-owner? I think the answer is easy. 

If your business sells products and provides services that are visibly connected to your belief system then by all means, go for it. If your products are all about the environment, then it makes sense for you to push your environmental agenda. If you legally sell marijuana in Colorado then why not be all about a national campaign to legalize it? If you own a chain of gun shops, then by all means join the N.R.A. and lobby enthusiastically for your industry. Your business is you. Your customers and the public know what to expect even before they walk in the door. That's OK.

But if you're a deli owner? A landscaper? A property developer? Or, like me, a seller of technology? Those companies, like most companies, are not built around a belief system. They're built around providing some other type of product or service and creating value and profits. If you're running a company like that, then you probably want to keep your personal beliefs, um, personal. If you choose not to, then prepare to suffer the consequences. Prepare to have enemies. Prepare to be accused of being a crook. And I can only hope you have a very thick skin, and pockets as deep as Donald Trump.

IMAGE: Gage Skidmore / Flickr.com
Last updated: Sep 4, 2013

GENE MARKS | Columnist | Owner, Marks Group

Gene Marks is a columnist, author, and small-business owner. He oversees the Marks Group, a 10-person technology consultancy to small and medium-size businesses. A certified public accountant, Marks has also worked in the entrepreneurial services arm of KPMG. He writes for The New York Times, Forbes, and The Huffington Post.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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