Barack Obama and Pope Francis could have endorsed Donald Trump on the first day of the Republican Convention and the headline would still be Melania Trump’s speech and questions of plagiarism.
The margin for error in high-stakes communications is zero. Fair or not, a well-stitched message can be wholly unraveled by a single thread.
Pat Smith, the mother of a man who lost his life during the attacks in Benghazi, said "I blame Hillary Clinton personally for the death of my son." But her words from the podium, as well as those from other speakers such as former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani, are being drowned out by the noise over Melania’s speech.
It was a terrible mistake, regardless of how it came about and whether or not it was plagiarism, and the Trump communications staff deserves 100% of the blame. Even if Mrs. Trump wrote her own speech and refused the assistance of the campaign team, it is still their fault.
I remember one of the President’s surrogates who forcefully rejected any assistance or oversight when it came to his remarks on the trail.
Even still, I made it my job to ensure every speech was vetted, often through creative means. When arriving at a new venue my first task was to instruct the teleprompter operator to come to me as soon as the principal handed in his remarks and to not input them until I provided a final version. Often I would delete anything that could cause problems and on at least one occasion rewrote significant portions of his remarks to avoid what would have been a negative distraction from the speaker’s positive message.
It would have been unethical for me to rewrite his positions or views, which I never did; my role was to protect the candidate’s brand and to enforce message discipline. The Trump communications team failed to do its job and as such the campaign sits under a dark cloud at a time when it hoped to benefit from a bump under the national spotlight.
As for how the remarks came to be, if anyone, including Melania Trump, purposefully lifted those passages from the 2008 speech of Michelle Obama, it was poor judgment. That said, there are means by which communicators safeguard against these kinds of blunders, making the intent almost irrelevant to the fact it was allowed to happen in the first place.
College students today are often required to run their written work through platforms such as TurnItIn.com to detect plagiarism issues. My technique is more primitive as I simply Google sections of my writing to ensure none of it gives even the appearance that I ripped it off from another source.
Mark Twain famously said "there is no such thing as a new idea." His view was that all thoughts are based on experience, even when one believes an idea is original it is formed by fragments of things we learned or observed previously – it’s hard to argue against his perspective.
It is likely that Melania Trump watched clips of speeches given by other prospective first ladies in preparation for her address; not only is that common practice, it is a good idea, especially for someone unaccustomed to giving prepared remarks to such a large audience.
Perhaps those particular words given by Michelle Obama resonated and were consistent with themes Melania envisioned for herself, so she took copious notes and passed them on to the speechwriters or used those notes in writing her remarks. I would consider this the best case scenario as far as an explanation, but it is still no excuse, especially on this stage, at this time.
The big question now is how does the campaign pick itself up, dust itself off, and reclaim control of its message.
It goes without saying that avoiding further stumbles is a must. But first it must address this issue, and the best approach has yet to be employed by the campaign: ripping off the bandage and addressing the issue head-on. Spin simply does not work, even if the spin is founded in truth.
If I were Paul Manafort, Trump’s campaign chairman, I would take the blame. Ultimately it was his oversight, as he failed to hold his team to a performance standard and obviously neglected to ask the right questions or insist on a disciplined review process. If he were to publicly take responsibility it would do a lot to relieve the building pressure.
Regardless of how Melania Trump’s primetime speech came to be, the campaign team should acknowledge the similarities between her words and those of Michelle Obama and admit it dropped the ball in the speech vetting process. In doing so, they can clarify that her message was from the heart and that she meant every word in spite of the similarities.
Mistakes happen, even in the big leagues, and firing someone for an oversight is the wrong approach, especially as a face-saving tactic. If someone on the staff purposefully plagiarized, that is different, and a termination for cause would be warranted, the same way a journalist is expelled for that offense.
The role of today’s communicator is vast and expanding. As much as we want the emphasis to be on developing strategies, crafting messages, and executing creative plans, a big part of our job is to play lifeguard. Who’s to blame for the kid who splits his head open at the pool: the lifeguard who let him run or the boy who wanted to impress his friends?
Trump’s team can save the GOP convention if it takes the right steps now to reclaim the message and drive the news cycle. There is only one right move and that is for Paul Manafort to say this is on him and it will not happen again.
Dan Hill is president of Hill Impact, a communications and public affairs firm headquartered in Washington, DC.