'Twitter-phobic' May should emphasise the impersonal to make Trump trip a comms success, say PR pros

Theresa May and her PR team would be wise to remain restrained in their comms strategy and must avoid "personalising" the UK-US relationship as she heads to meet President Trump.

May will be the first world leader to meet the new commander-in-chief since the election - although not the first UK politician, given Nigel Farage's apparent relationship with Trump, which had seemed to put Downing Street's comms function on the back foot last year.

Political comms experts agree that for May and her aides, the visit is a huge opportunity - she has spoken of her hopes for the two countries' "special relationship" ahead of the trip - but also fraught with complexity and uncertainty.

Naheed Mehta, formerly of Downing Street and the Foreign Office and now a senior adviser at Edelman UK, said that May should communicate in a way that makes clear that the relationship is between two countries, not two people.

"I think that the most important thing is to remember that this is a relationship between two countries - it goes beyond the individuals, it goes so much deeper than that," she said.

Mehta also said the PM would need to work hard to ensure that aspects of her dealings with Trump would "remain private", and be very clear about what those areas were. She added that she did not expect the two to hold a joint press conference.

Noting that May has "made it clear that she is not afraid to say difficult things to Trump", she said she hoped the Prime Minister would take a public stand on the issue of torture, after Trump's comments this morning. "I think the torture aspect will be interesting - she needs to make clear that we don’t do it and we don’t condone others that do it," she said.

Matt Carter, founder of research and comms consultancy Message House, and formerly general secretary of the Labour Party, said that Trump's style of comms contrasted with May's understated way of working with the media.

He said: "The May/Trump meeting will be a fascinating clash of communications strategies. Never mind campaigning in poetry and governing in prose, Trump is doing both in 140 characters with big pledges and bold headlines. In contrast, May’s comms have been cautious, seeking to avoid raising expectations for fear of over-promising and under-delivering."

"The PM’s team should avoid the hyperbole. This is one meeting where actions speak louder than words. The fact she is the first world leader to meet the new President is a powerful message about Britain in a post-Brexit world that needs no Trumpification."

George McGregor, managing partner of public affairs firm Interel, said he expected to see "a certain playing down of the narrative from early last week that May will seek to speak truth to power particularly over climate change and feminism", but added that May would "want to make sure that she’s not seen as a pushover".

He also said the PM could do well to flatter Trump, commenting: "May will want to flatter the President by saying something like 'he is a business man and having met him she is confident he is someone we can do business with'. The prize will be more warm words on a trade deal in the run up to the triggering of Article 50."

Joey Jones, UK head of public affairs at Weber Shandwick and a former broadcast journalist, said May faced "an impossible balancing act".

"May is expected to show closeness and distance; that she is Donald Trump’s warmest ally, and when necessary, his sternest critic; that Britain can profit from a protectionist United States; that a genuine friendship can be formed between a guarded, cautious, Twitter-phobic Prime Minister and Twitter-obsessive, bombastic and wildly unpredictable President," said Jones, who also briefly worked as an adviser to May before joining the agency.

He said May should not expect everything to go smoothly, but should aim for the visit to be "seen as a success on balance".

Jones went on to say that the critical objective for May was for the UK public to see that Trump "was ready to listen to British concerns, not just to shoot from the hip".

Ben Caspersz, founder of Claremont Communications, had an optimistic view of the meeting, reflecting on having recently read Trump's book 'The Art of the Deal'.

"The first paragraph of the first page of the first chapter of Trump’s best-seller tells us what this meeting is about. He says: 'Deals are my art form. Other people paint beautifully on canvas or write wonderful poetry. I like making deals, preferably big deals. That’s how I get my kicks.'

For the Prime Minister, this is music to her ears. Now, more than ever, Britain needs to be seen to be making deals. This meeting is pure PR gold for Theresa May," he said.

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