How PR should respond to Trump and Brexit: Get out of London and New York

The chief executive of an agency with offices in London and New York says it's time for PR pros to get out of their trans-Atlantic bubble.

President Donald Trump, family, and staff on election night. (Image via the Trump campaign's Facebook page).
President Donald Trump, family, and staff on election night. (Image via the Trump campaign's Facebook page).

I woke with a profound sense of déjà vu on the morning of November 9.

As a Brit living between New York and London, the election of Donald Trump stirred identical feelings of confusion and dismay as the U.K.’s Brexit vote just four months earlier.  

On both occasions, I felt deeply disturbed. Without exception, everyone I know in London and New York—Including 30 co-workers across both cities—shared my sense of foreboding, apprehension, and incomprehension.

For me, one the most unsettling aspects of these momentous decisions was the fact that they were reached democratically. Approximately 80 million people on both sides of the Atlantic cast a ballot for Trump or Brexit.

I was struck by the stark realization that I’m totally oblivious to the concerns, values, and perspectives of a staggeringly high proportion of the population in both countries.

I felt ashamed at my lack of understanding and empathy for the millions of people who live outside the "elitist liberal bubbles" of New York and London.

It occurred to me that this profound disconnect had some significant implications for the work we do as PR people.

Given the chasm between the mindset and values of typical urban PR professionals and the 80 million people who voted for the other side, how can we do our jobs effectively if we have such a superficial understanding of the consumers our clients hire us to reach?

It raised the question of whether my agency and our industry have unwittingly performed a disservice to our clients. I fear we’ve been blindly delivering comms campaigns that have little chance of truly resonating with those millions of constituents who have such wildly different perspectives on life.

So how do we respond to this realization?

The first and most important challenge is one of education. While we will never see eye-to-eye on every issue, we need to replace our arrogance with humility, drop ingrained urban prejudices, and work hard to understand what drove so many millions of people to make decisions about the directions of our countries.

What were the fears, hopes, and motivations of the 80 million "Leavers" and Trump voters?

What commonalities link this demographically diverse and geographically disparate group?

And what can we learn from the people whose messages reached them so effectively? There is already a field of study focused on the direct communication channels employed by Trump via Twitter and the populist style of Nigel Farage.

In the U.S., we should also ask fundamental questions about the national media landscape and how, in being so myopically bicoastal, it’s inherently set up to exclude and alienate much of America. And in being similarly concentrated in New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, is the PR industry actually part of the problem?

Given that we’re in the process of planning a West Coast office opening, it’s a timely question for us as an agency.  

Perhaps we should divert our attention from California and open instead in the U.S. heartland, so we can get under-the-skin of the local population that feels so disenfranchised by the coastal, liberal opinion-makers?

Whatever we do and however we respond, the time has come to quit the existential hand-wringing. We’ve spent enough time whining by the water cooler and commiserating over cappuccinos. It’s time to understand our fellow citizens, even if we don’t necessarily agree with them. We have a responsibility to ourselves—and to our clients.

Sami McCabe is CEO of Clarity PR.

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