State of the debate: Communicators on Clinton v. Trump I

PRWeek asked a handful of PR pros for their thoughts on the first presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton faced off in the first of three presidential debates on Monday night, with the former secretary of state declared the winner by most focus groups, online election prediction markets, and commentators. Trump is sticking to his guns that online polls declared him the victor. (View the entire debate below via PBS NewsHour.

The debate by the numbers, via The New York Times.

After the debate ended, the top communications officials from both campaigns appeared on cable news. Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway told Fox News’ Megyn Kelly that her candidate showed admirable restraint by not attacking Clinton over former President Bill Clinton’s personal behavior while in office.

"Restraint is a virtue and it’s a presidential virtue, and I think for all those people who like to talk about tone and temperament, they ought to replay that clip and think about all the things that were going through millions of Americans’ heads that he didn’t say," she said.

Clinton press secretary Brian Fallon also appeared on Kelly’s show, contending that Clinton wanted to talk about the economy more than any other topic.

"The economy was the number one topic we wanted to talk about in this debate, because it’s the number one issue on the minds of voters, including all of the persuadable voters who are left in this election still making up their minds," he said.

Richard Edelman on Chicago
With violence in the city of Chicago serving as a debate punching bag for Trump, PRWeek asked one of its favorite sons, Edelman CEO Richard Edelman, how he felt about his hometown playing such a prominent role in the debate.

"To a certain extent, Trump sounded like politicians 30 years ago about law and order. That’s a lot of code words, and I would hope we were beyond that," the agency CEO said.

Edelman also said he thought Clinton won the debate, but not in a knockout.

"Trump opened strongly. He was coherent about the economy, though I don’t agree with him.  And on trade, he had her on her heels. But then Clinton seemed to get back in the middle rounds, particularly on issues around income tax, his claims of job creation, and borrowings. In the last third of the debate on foreign policy, he actually seemed low-energy and somewhat less coherent," he said. "Overall, she won. It wasn’t a knockout, but she made a better show of it. Also whether it’s stamina or health, she put to bed any issues about her physical capacity."

PRWeek asked several communicators to pick the most memorable moment of the debate.

Andrew Ricci, VP, Levick
"What stood out to me the most was how little self-awareness Donald Trump seemed to exhibit. It appeared as though he learned no lessons from history and took no advice from political experts across the spectrum. I was surprised that time after time, he took the bait and let Clinton get under his skin, and that’s become the headline in today’s coverage. The best outcome for him would have been to look presidential and show a solid grasp of policy knowledge; if he had done that, he’d have won. Instead, he got caught up early in defending himself instead of articulating clear policy contrasts, and abandoned all hope of looking like a serious candidate."

Tina Cassidy, EVP and chief content officer, InkHouse
I'll avoid the obvious answer: how different the candidates are and how Clinton did so much better than Trump in terms of substance and style over the course of 90 white-knuckle minutes. But what was really interesting to see was how much the format of the debate really mattered. Because one question from Lester Holt had 15 minutes to play out, it meant there was no place for the candidates to hide. There was too much air time to reply only with platitudes or sound bites. The audience expected more; and because Clinton had the substance and experience to fall back on, she shined, while he fumbled around for words.  One other fun thing to watch: the real-time fact-checking on Twitter and how major new organizations, from The New York Times to Slate, were re-posting relevant stories immediately in response to debate topics as they came up. It was the best possible context, and it was meaningful. 

Ellen Moran, EVP and Washington GM, Hill+Knowlton Strategies, and former White House communications director for President Barack Obama
The key takeaway from the first debate is the same point we hammer home when counseling executives for key moments in the spotlight: preparation matters. Clinton was comfortable and knowledgeable, and she was ready for every opportunity to draw the contrast with her opponent. Trump missed the opportunity to look presidential. His responses were often weak, even struggling to fill his time allotment, and his demeanor for viewers watching the split-screen was unflattering. It’s clear he didn’t prepare for the basic exchanges that were easily anticipated. By the second half of the debate, he was attacking her on her areas of strength and revealing his lack of basic knowledge of issues on which voters will be judging him.

Andrew Noyes, VP of communications, Brigade
Hillary Clinton is a skilled, competitive debater and last night was no exception. Her lengthy pre-debate practice sessions and exhaustive research paid off in a largely unflappable performance. I think Donald Trump, for his part, delivered for his fan base but didn't pick up any new supporters or win over undecided voters. The policy messages he'd hoped to land were overshadowed by moments of discomfort and a handful of blustery confrontations were reminiscent of the Republican primary debates. The amount of time Trump spent in the spin room afterward was atypical for such a forum but hardly surprising for this GOP nominee.

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