Ben Kaplan is the founder and CEO of PR Hacker, one of the top viral public relations firms in the world with clientele such as Budweiser, Smuckers and Del Monte. According to Kaplan, the team behind PR Hacker’s marketing strategy is tasked with creating stories or content that gets shared widely, that can spread around the country or the globe and go viral.
“I think in this election and with the surprising result of who won the election, that was a key example of an idea or concept or set of ideas spreading very quickly and spurring people to action, which is exactly the type of work we do,” Kaplan said. “I think a lot of that work has been done on the corporate side of marketing and you’re seeing it just start to arrive on the political side in the campaigns we saw in this election.”
The New Political talked viral campaigning with Kaplan, and how it impacted the rise of Donald Trump’s highly polarizing rhetoric, resulting in his Election Day upset.
Q: You say Donald Trump used viral emotions to result in high voter turnout. How did he go about triggering those polarizing emotions like anger and anxiety?
A: Well first of all, those kind of emotions, there’s activating emotions and there’s deactivating emotions. Activating emotions cause action and that’s separate from something like sadness, that doesn’t cause people to go out to the polls, that makes you want to go back home and crawl under the covers. These are emotions that spur people to do things. Big ones are anger and anxiety, but there are other ones that are not quite as negative in nature; one is awe. That’s your connection and sense of wonderment, how you’re connected to the world, why we’re all here, what it all means, that ‘Ah-ha’ moment.
These are all things that cause people to have immediate, sustained action. In this case, whether it was a lot of anger at all the establishment in Washington and not addressing individual problems and fixing things, and not actually reflecting what people think, he really tapped into that throughout this process and he did it really early on.
Q: You’ve talked about how Trump was able to use these viral emotions in a more effective way than Hillary Clinton’s more traditional TV ads and “ground game.” What does this indicate for the political sphere?
A: I think the biggest one is how you spread an idea, and how you explain your ideas in a campaign. There’s a premium placed on whether that idea can spread and be shared by others. So, it’s not just about how great the plan it, or whether it makes the most sense or even if it actually works, it’s that can you make that idea three things. One, really simple so people get it right away, two, surprising, what makes it notable or newsworthy is that it’s somehow different than what you might expect, and third is that it’s concrete, that it connects with something relevant and timely and important.
An example of that is Trump’s wall, having the wall with Mexico. It’s a difference in approach in terms of how things go viral in that more of the traditional politician’s approach, more of Hillary Clinton’s approach is, ‘Okay, I have a five-point plan for how to deal with this immigration issue,’ and what made something like the wall more viral was that, one, it’s really simple to understand. In five seconds or less, he says ‘I want to build a wall with Mexico and make them pay for it,’ you can understand that right away. Two, it’s surprising, because that’s not something that a lot of politicians would say or have said, so it immediately generates headlines, it immediately fuels coverage and people talking about it. And third, it’s absolutely concrete, not only because it’s literally a wall but because it really connected to his position, which was one, being an outsider, and two, being really tough on immigration. Those three things made it a much more viral concept and it was packaged that way so it became very easy for people to share it and spread it.
Q: You talked about how the negative news cycle made Trump stronger because even though it reminded voters that he was doing all these controversial things, it also purported the identity that he was a non-establishment outsider. How did that appeal to voters?
A: I think one big part of that was that those individual controversies did hurt him, you can see that reflected, but they hurt him kind of temporarily and he bounced back. The reason was an additional message on top of the negative message. You had the negative messages and there was probably a lot that he and his campaign could have done to avoid that, but what’s happening is you have both the context and the subtext.
The context was kind of the negative comment or scandal or controversy, but the subtext was that he was a political outsider who didn’t talk like a politician, and because that was the overall message, it became the most important message in this election and was what a very vocal part of the population wanted.
Q: You say viral campaigns are used successfully in the PR industry, but that they’re unprecedented in presidential politics. How do you think this will continue to impact Trump’s resulting presidency?
A: I think one big one is that it will influence a lot of the elections we’ll have in two years, and again, in four years. Certain blunt instruments of politics that it was assumed you had to have to drive results, mainly really big T.V. ad buys and elaborate ground game organization to get out the vote, some of those things may not be as critical as they once were if you can have something that compensates. That’s where you have to create ideas and spread them effectively, activate emotions that compel people to want to do and share something. Those things are going to be an opportunity for candidates, especially those who don’t have a lot of funding and may be the underdog, to help beat the incumbent.
People are going to have to figure out how to do that, just like any other kind of marketing. It’s more targeted, personal, digital, everything that big brands are doing, and political campaigns are going to shift toward that. The two big levers that they have now are T.V. ads and mail, and that’s going to shift to more digital, social and viral strategies because they can be just as effective at a lot less cost.
Q: Can you share data about how Trump dominated the volume of mass media and social media conversations?
A: We looked at overall mass media and social media. This was after the conventions, when we ran these numbers, but Donald Trump generated 95 percent more social media posts, and 41 percent more mass media coverage than Hillary Clinton. So there was a volume difference in terms of social media and mass media coverage. That wasn’t all the way until the end of the campaign but that was a significant portion of the campaign. He was able to define the playing field in which the discussion really took place, and what is unique now is this viral circle between mass media and social media. Mass media will cover what’s going on in social media and social media will then share what’s happening in mass media. Trump’s Twitter account became really important, not just because it was a Twitter account but because that Twitter account was not only shared online but was covered by all of mass media, all he was saying, and then was in turn being shared by people back into social. That viral circle is what gave his Twitter account a tremendous amount of reach and power.
Q: How do you personally think this will impact the future of American social media and American politics?
A: I think in the future that one, it’s that every brand, every company, every organization, every cause, every candidate is going to need to think about how they approach viral PR. And it’s going to be a new discipline that is a specific discipline that they need to think about. It’s how to get the message across, how to broadcast what people are saying, how to get a message that everyone who shares the message is completely compelled to share it, spread it and talk about it, and that’s a strategy that everyone is going to need, because you can accomplish the spreading of a message much easier, much faster and with much less cost. So everyone’s going to need some type of viral PR strategy.