16 November 2016

Explaining America

Written by: Richard Edelman, President & Global Chief Executive Officer at Edelman

Government Affairs, Insights, News, Public Affairs, Reputation, Trade

United States flag blows in the wind

Last night’s election of Donald J. Trump as President of the United States not only stunned the pundits, but confirmed many of the trends we’ve seen in populist movements worldwide. It signifies the potential for dramatic change to come in American policy on issues ranging from foreign policy and immigration to the environment and health care. It appears America chose to turn inward.

This was a declaration by working class white Americans, who have suffered a decline in living standard and fear for their future in a globalized world, echoing the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom. It was a profound rejection of the establishment, especially of the mainstream media, which uniformly endorsed Secretary Hillary Clinton. Here are a few thoughts on the implications of the election.

Why this happened:

1. Inequality of Trust and Income Has Consequences — The 2016 Edelman Trust Barometer found that the informed public/elites (college plus education, top 25 percent of income, report significant media consumption) had much higher trust levels in institutions, than the mass population, particularly in the U.S. and UK (respectively). Income inequality correlates with trust inequality, with a 31 point gap between high and low income respondents in the U.S. on trust in institutions. Trump’s victory is a vote of no confidence in institutions and in the establishment.

2. Twitter Triumphs over The New York Times  Trump went direct to the people, mostly through his community of 14 million followers on Twitter. The mainstream media, notably The New York Times, broke stories on Trump’s non-payment of taxes, his failed Trump University and his questionable behavior with women. None of those stories ultimately were enough to change the tide. There was a near-universal set of editorial endorsements of Clinton. Trump used this disparity to his advantage, to claim media bias and unify his base of supporters. Social media coverage captured the angry tone of the country better than mainstream because it relies on a ‘person like me,’ doing away with the hierarchical in favor of the personal.

3. Genuine and Authentic Beats Intellectual and Measured — The short-form, speed and consistency of communication by Trump beat Clinton’s nuanced, detailed and long-form communication. Trump came across as more genuine, Clinton as less than transparent. Trump engaged directly with his community, Clinton spoke through the media in a careful and less frequent manner.

4. Advertising and Celebrities Hurt the Cause — The dominant advertising advantage of Clinton, with spending of 10 to 1 over Trump, reinforced the perception that she was trying to buy, rather than earn, votes. Her emphasis on negative campaigning, focused on Trump’s persona, instead of on economic issues, proved ineffective. The use of celebrity spokespeople may have rallied her base, but among swing voters it only exacerbated the feeling Clinton was part of the establishment, out to protect its own interests.

What must happen next:

1. Business in the Dialogue, Not Bystander — The temptation might be for business to use the Republican dominance in both Houses of Congress and in the Executive Office to seek less oversight in environment, financial services, and health care. This would be a mistake of monumental proportions, seen as the politics of self-interest. His Republican party can be deeply hostile to business. The need for Business to lead has never been more evident, whether on supply chain, pushing for free trade, or on immigration. CEOs should fill a leadership void, educating employees and their communities on issues such as trade while creating movements such as Starbucks’* 100,000 Opportunities jobs program.

2. Business Must Calm the Resentments — The election reflects a deep suspicion about the pace of change, the threat posed by globalization and the rise of the sharing economy. The Trump campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again,” is a simple line that relies on nostalgia. There must be a better explanation of the How and the Why, not simply the What. Any sense of cultural condescension must go away, in favor of a narrative that can be shared with employees and their families.

3. Recognize that Much of Your Audience Rejects Established Authority — The usual cultivation of academic experts and opinion leaders on issues is insufficient, if not counter-productive. We have to find voices who are believed by the average person, from long-tenured employees to passionate brand enthusiasts.

4. Consider the Impact of Nationalism and the Power of Local — We must recognize the rejection of long-accepted brands in favor of upstart locally sourced brands. National identity will be deeply important. The foreign companies seeking to prosper in the U.S. will have to emphasize their community involvement, training programs and local executive talent. There will be a much higher hurdle for brands from developing markets such as China.

5. Every Company Needs to Be a Media Company — Institutions are better served by going direct to end users, establishing a channel for direct dialogue and feedback. It is a world of many to one, not one to many. The predominant axis of communication is horizontal, that mass population relies on search and social, not mainstream media. Our content has to be short-form, shareable and with an opportunity for consumer generated response and engagement.

6. Truth Matters More Than Ever — In the campaign, there were several instances of exaggeration or part-truths. The hashtag #NeverHillary spread lies like wildfire. In a post-election context, there will be a need to prepare for similar pressure through social channels, best answered by passionate consumers and well-informed employees.

In January, in my essay on the findings of the 2016 Edelman Trust Barometer, I suggested that the Grand Illusion of the elites was coming to an end. The illusion was premised on three concepts: that elites had superior information, that elites were acting in the best interests of the mass population, and that someday a few in the mass population could become elites. The results of the Brexit vote and the U.S. election have confirmed the idea that the Pyramid of Influence, with elites at the top holding authority and influence, has been flipped on its head, with mass population now in control and wielding influence.

Historical context is vital. Many were concerned that the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 would provoke nuclear war with the Soviet Union; ultimately he reached a deal on nuclear weapons with Soviet leadership. The populist sentiment unleashed by Trump has unsettled minority and LGBT populations. We would be advised to remember this is a country of laws, with a three-branch government designed by the Founding Fathers to check any momentary popular impulse. As an American running a global business, I have faith in our system, in our Constitution’s mandate to the balance of powers. President Obama said this morning that “Ultimately, we’re still on the same team.” Gridlock will cause government to walk away from key issues, giving the private sector an opportunity to fill this void. Edelman employees should also get more deeply involved in volunteer work for non-profits, to take up some of these societal challenges. Together, it’s our time to lead.

Richard Edelman is president and CEO.

*Edelman client

Please update your browser.

This website requires Chrome, Firefox, Safari or Internet Explorer 9+