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Guest opinion: Lessons from Melania's jacket and the president's tweets

First lady Melania Trump walks to her vehicle as she arrives at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., Thursday, June 21, 2018, after visiting the Upbring New Hope Children Center run by the Lutheran Social Services of the South in McAllen, Texas.
First lady Melania Trump walks to her vehicle as she arrives at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., Thursday, June 21, 2018, after visiting the Upbring New Hope Children Center run by the Lutheran Social Services of the South in McAllen, Texas.
Andrew Harnik, AP

Dr. Hamza Yusuf, the American Islamic scholar and co-founder of Zaytuna College, could well have been teaching a course in business communication.

Moving a target audience to action is all about the words you use and how you use them, otherwise known as “strategic messaging.” Get it right and you’re on the road to success. Get it wrong and ... well, best case, you’ll stay stuck where you are.

Everyone with a special interest — be it a businessperson, politician, government bureaucrat, head of a nongovernmental organization, clergyperson, educator, whoever — has an image to cultivate and maintain and target audiences that he or she wants or needs to impress and influence. That process generally falls into the broad category of public relations, though many of the aforementioned professionals will deny they care much about PR.

Case in point: I spent much of my career working with and for businessman and philanthropist Jon Huntsman Sr. He once told me “PR is a waste of time and money” (which was a bit of a blow since my experience with media and public relations was part of the reason he hired me). But there was no one who was more sensitive about his public persona than Jon Huntsman Sr., and we went to great lengths to protect and burnish it. But we never did it in the name of “PR.”

Though people may have another name for it, it’s all the same. And it’s remarkable that more of them don’t pay more attention to it.

A short while ago, first lady Melania Trump created a media firestorm with her now-infamous jacket. She was on her way to Texas, ostensibly to show support for immigrant families separated at the border. As she was boarding the plane, she wore a jacket with this message covering the back: “I really don’t care. Do U?” And the media — traditional and social — went nuts.

Her staff quickly put out the message, “It’s just a jacket; don’t read anything into it.” Unlike her husband, Melania Trump is not a polarizing person, so it probably was innocent: just a jacket. Be that as it may, it was too late. Her message of concern and support (if that’s what she was trying to convey) was largely lost in the controversy of what she chose to wear.

Speaking of Melania’s husband, President Donald Trump seemingly has little interest in promoting a good message, preferring instead to use his Twitter account to raise eyebrows and ire. Political columnist Stuart Rothenberg, writing in the Washington-based publication Roll Call, says Trump has the perfect message heading into the 2018 midterm elections: The economy is strong, unemployment is down and “Isis is on the run.”

But instead of pushing these positive messages out to the electorate, Trump uses Twitter to “(go) after Republican officeholders, professional basketball stars, NFL players and members of Congress.” The president seems to believe that as long as he can stir up a certain segment of supporters, a potentially good message will take care of itself. Meanwhile, political pundits of all stripes are predicting the upcoming elections will result in everything from “trouble for Republicans” to “a blue wave.” Does Donald Trump want Republican candidates to do well? One could look at his lack of a unifying message and argue that he really doesn’t care.

Accomplishing the tasks of managing an image and reaching important audiences requires at least three key elements: developing a message, finding the most effective means to deliver it and not allowing anything to interfere with it.

Members of the public generally have a very short attention span. A big part of the reason is they are bombarded with so much information. They also have built-in filters that cause them to see what they want to see and hear what they want to hear. That isn’t an indictment; it’s just human nature. Of course, we must factor in the cacophony of negativity coming from both ends of the political spectrum, which sensible people have begun to tune out.

The challenge for anyone with a special interest is to make certain the message is correct, clear and concise and that it cuts through the clutter and breaks through the filters. Then they must be certain that they don’t do anything to sabotage their own efforts. Like Melania and her jacket. Or her husband and his Twitter account.