From the editor-in-chief: Trump and beyond - shocking times teach us compassionate connection is the answer

And so November 2020 begins as tumultuously as we would expect; with another national lockdown in the UK and a US election that turned out to be just as dramatic as predicted.

The comms battles between Trump and Biden, and the socio-cultural phenomena highlighted therein, were fascinating. More on that in a moment.

But as Boris Johnson announced the long-dreaded full lockdown late on Halloween, one could feel the gloom descend on our own country. It was always coming looking at the similar decisions taken by other home nations, France, Italy and even Germany. Nevertheless, second time around, approaching winter, it was always going to be devastating psychologically and economically.

We media and comms professionals are inherently tuned into the news and current affairs agenda. It’s what we do. Sadly it also means that we are forced to consume a diet of negative narrative, particularly this year, particularly at the moment.

It's undoubtedly tough on our mental health, quite apart from all the other challenges to our wellness.

Back in March, as we were being locked down during the first wave, I wrote here that the only way of coping with these difficult times was “to strive to keep connecting better... with more kindness and sensitivity... with our audiences, and with each other”.

It was well received in March. And I believe it’s even more crucial to reinforce that message today.

It’s easy to get caught up with the economic negativity. Thousands of people are losing their jobs at the moment – this week alone, at Sainsbury’s, John Lewis, in restaurants and pubs countrywide - and my heart goes out to those people. This is what happens in a recession. We have been in recession for six months already.

One has sympathy and genuine empathy for those working in hospitality and travel in the usually busy pre-Christmas period, during what is an enduring downturn now.

But the economic activity will return. It always has.

Working in media and comms has never been as important as it is heading into 2021.

Journalists have been hard hit by all this but good content is in demand as never before. As oft written here in recent months, PR professionals tangibly are being valued more than ever in 2020. Comms specialists have gained credibility within their organisations. Comms agencies have outperformed ad agencies within the market. Indeed some, not all, will report a better 2020 than 2019, actively creating jobs.

The reality is a national lockdown has been inevitable since early September when it became clear the second wave was in control. And the lockdown - whether it’s one month, two or more - should work in flattening the curve, providing more time for the incredible medical profession to develop effective vaccines and treatments.

What becomes paramount in the meantime, therefore, is looking after ourselves, and each other, during this awful-yet-limited period.

When it comes to the whole issue of compassionate connection, what could be more relevant and stimulating than observing the US presidential race, which as I write still hangs in the balance?

Whatever one thinks of Donald Trump, his ability to connect with voters is simply astonishing. Even if he loses this election, he received around 68 million votes, five million more than he did even in 2016. He won around 48 per cent of the popular vote in America despite years of scandal and near impeachment. The pollsters had near written him off prior to the election. Joe Biden, even if he wins, failed to achieve any sort of landslide, any ‘blue wall’.

Of course this doesn’t mean you have to like Trump. It certainly doesn’t make him a great leader. It’s crucial however to understand how he connects.

Much has been written about his social media ranting via his 88 million-strong (!) Twitter following; his dark and dirty messaging via Facebook; his negative advertising commercials. These are all vital, but there were other factors at play in 2016 and today that explain Trump’s ability to connect.

He is a natural, old-fashioned and adept campaigner. During the final two weeks he barnstormed his way across the swing states. He focused on the core issue of the economy, which indeed emerged as far more important to most Americans than anything else. He focused on the core message of “Making America Great Again”, having abandoned in June the rather insipid “Keep America Great”. He focused in on Joe Biden’s weaknesses among swing state audiences, such as some Latino communities’ mistrust of any “socialist” sympathies.

Above all Trump is charismatic and entertaining; he is good copy, good content for the media - still vital qualities in winning people over whether you’re communicating a politician or a brand.

To be clear I’m not suggesting that Donald Trump’s approach to connecting is one to be emulated in its entirety. Aspects of his appeal are negative and massively damaging. As the psychologist and philosopher Sam Harris brilliantly articulates here:

It is precisely Trump’s manifold flaws that explain his appeal to a huge chunk of America. It remains crucial that we question Trump’s motivations and morals as we should all our leaders. At heart he is an arch populist - a hugely successful populist.

My point is that one needs to understand such populism, particularly if one works in politics, in media, in comms.

If Biden wins, then by definition his campaign has been a success. He has sufficiently connected, sufficiently communicated, to achieve his primary aim.

Biden should indeed be lauded for his focus on wisdom, compassion and unification, which hopefully were enough to secure victory. He should be lauded because these are qualities that ultimately are more important and valuable to us all than greed, narcissism and division.

The truth however is that we live in an increasingly polarised society. It’s all very well winning over 51 or 52 per cent of people. But if 48 per cent of people don’t accept you, even hate you, then one has failed in one major respect. One needs to work hard to understand how to connect with the half that has moved away from you.

No single politician or party can change society’s polarisation over the past decade. No organisation or brand can reverse this trend; no single journalist or PR professional.

But they, we, can all make an impact by connecting better, connecting in a positive way.

It will make us more successful in the widest possible sense. That I believe is how the late winter, the spring, and beyond will be brighter.

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