Shock and brawl can be an effective strategy

Communicators have a natural tendency to play safe and fly beneath the radar, but lessons from combat theory in Top Gun and our current President suggest it pays to embrace chaos and confusion once in a while.

Sometimes it pays to consider a maverick approach to comms rather than following the crowd.
Sometimes it pays to consider a maverick approach to comms rather than following the crowd.

It’s difficult to explain the enduring ability of President Donald Trump to stay ahead of the chaos that surrounds his reputation and public image on a daily basis.

Trump has had one of his better weeks, especially as far as his base is concerned, with populist coups such as pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal, welcoming home three American hostages from North Korea at 3:00am in the morning, talking tough on drug pricing, and freestyling at his latest campaign-style rally in Indiana.

All this despite a seemingly disastrous start to the week that saw his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani take to the airwaves to supposedly defend the President but instead put his foot in it on a number of occasions, contradicting previous statements by his boss on issues such as payments to pornographic actress Stormy Daniels.

It’s difficult to believe there was any formal strategy behind these events, but given the outcome is complete confusion and obfuscation that has clouded the original issue and taken people’s attention in a variety of wildly different directions, perhaps there was method in the madness.

Now-deceased U.S. Airforce Colonel John Boyd once came up with a theory called The OODA Loop - observe, orient, decide, and act – to describe a decision cycle in combat situations.

It’s a theory epitomized on screen by Tom Cruise in his air-to-air combat scenes in Top Gun, illustrated by moves such as flipping the bird to his Soviet opponent during Cold War maneuvers.

"The Loop" in Boyd’s theory is actually a set of interacting loops kept in continuous operation during combat. The strategy contains an element of surprise and shaping operations in a way that also unifies Gestalt psychology, cognitive science, and game theory.

For someone like Trump, who is in constant combat mode, the theory makes a lot of sense: witness the latest Giuliani fiasco, what Axios calls his "shock and brawl" way of dealing with foreign leaders, and his reliance on gut instinct rather than careful research and rehearsal.

According to writer Robert Greene, the proper OODA mindset is to let go a little, allow chaos to become part of the mental system, and use it to create more chaos and confusion for the opponent. The instigator funnels the inevitable chaos of the battlefield in the direction of the enemy.

Hill+Knowlton Strategies' global chairman and CEO Jack Martin told us on this week’s edition of The PR Week podcast that, while we shouldn’t make too much of the Giuliani/Trump outbursts, the chaos theory has its roots in political campaigning and communications.

"You can over-analyze these things, and it’s all a little silly," he said. "But if you take Donald Trump and Rudy Giuliani and put them in the same sentence, say one of them is president and one is his lawyer, and they’re going on a talk show together, what do you think might happen?

"I’m not sure it wasn’t a strategy. What we do know is there is now complete chaos around the subject. In my political campaign days, one of the options was to create so much chaos it really wasn’t clear to anybody what was going on. I don’t know if it was intentional, but if I’d done it I would certainly take credit for it."

While it may not be a fully conscious strategy in Trump’s case, this is certainly how a lot of his interactions and communications play out, and he seems to thrive in the ensuing chaos.

For a PR pro in a corporate or consumer role, that’s a difficult strategy to embrace, given they are not historically comfortable with losing control. Social media has changed this, but there is still a natural reflex to want to manage every detail and anticipate every scenario.

In certain situations, however, it might well be a tactic worth employing in a business environment, or at least considering.

Look at new best friends John Legere and Marcelo Claure, CEOs of T-Mobile and Sprint. As CNN reported this week after the two former sparring partners announced the $26 billion merger of their respective companies on Sunday, Claure once called Legere a "con artist" and said T-Mobile's Uncarrier marketing scheme was "bullshit."

Legere accused Claure of ripping off T-Mobile and told him to "go back to the kiddie pool." Now they are waxing lyrical about working in partnership and featuring in soft-focus buddy videos with one another. Shock and brawl has culminated in charm and cuddles.

It worked especially well for Legere, who will lead the new company despite being no stranger to profanity-laden exchanges on social media and battling with President Trump on Twitter.

While the natural tendency for a communicator not to want to zig while everyone else is zagging is very strong, sometimes a braver approach can pay dividends – or sometimes there simply isn’t anything to lose and chaos and confusion, as the President has proved, can stump even the wiliest of opponents.

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