How NOT to Launch an October Surprise: PR Takeaways from Trump’s Failed Attempt

An “October surprise” is news that magically “happens” before a November election, just in time to throw a wrench in the works.


Politico says they can be “happenstance or deliberately orchestrated;” the article lists examples going back to 1840.  More recently, the 2016 presidential election featured such surprises on both sides: the infamous Access Hollywood tape that showed Trump being Trump; and emails from Wikileaks that cast the Democratic party and its nominee in a negative light.

This time around there was chatter about a possible bombshell in the making.  We are now days away from the election, and I think most would agree that, if it happened, the October surprise came and went with barely a whimper.

What can the PR field learn from this?  What tactics should be avoided to “open big” and perhaps launch the next, more successful October surprise?  This post explains.

Politics and PR

I’m a news junkie and a PR guy.  My “beat” is tech, not politics; still I love to watch closely during election season.  The campaigns’ PR moves – their speeches, messaging, and media tactics are on full display, and you can learn a lot. For me, the presidential debates are like watching the Super Bowl.

So, I of course paid special attention to rumblings about an October surprise as the month approached.  And I became dimly aware of efforts to paint Joe Biden and his son as corrupt. 

There was a story in NY Post, and related coverage, about leaked emails that appeared to show how Hunter and possibly Joe Biden stood to gain from shady dealings with foreign governments.  I read these stories but did not take them too seriously; paid a bit more attention when Trump cryptically wondered if Biden was the “big man” referred to in the emails during the last debate.

I only realized that this was supposed to be a much bigger story, a real October surprise, after reading this NY Times piece: Trump Had One Last Story to Sell. The Wall Street Journal Wouldn’t Buy It.

The article is fascinating on a number of levels.  It is a deep dive into the Trump administrations’ attempt to drum up an October surprise.  It shows how the news sausage gets made: how such stories begin, how some try to coopt media and orchestrate news; and the enduring role of major media as a gatekeeper and arbiter of the top stories of the day.

If a Story Falls in the Forest, and Top Tier doesn’t Hear– did it Really Happen?

NY Times Media Columnist Ben Smith wrote about how the campaign started:

By early October, even people inside the White House believed President Trump’s re-election campaign needed a desperate rescue mission. So three men… gathered… to launch one… The three had pinned their hopes… on a fourth guest, a straight-shooting Wall Street Journal White House reporter named Michael Bender. They delivered the goods to him there: a cache of emails detailing Hunter Biden’s business activities, and, on speaker phone, a former business partner of Hunter Biden’s [who] was willing to go on the record… with an explosive claim: that Joe Biden… had been aware of, and profited from, his son’s activities. The Trump team left believing that The Journal would blow the thing open

The Journal had been chosen because it offered the right levels of trust, reach and leans right wing.  So far, so good.  But things got “messy” when Rudolph Giuliani jumped into the fray, without letting the others know:

[He] burst onto the scene with the tabloid version of… the plot. Mr. Giuliani delivered a cache of documents of questionable provenance — to The New York Post…  Mr. Giuliani had been working with the former Trump aide Steve Bannon, who also began leaking some of the emails to favored right-wing outlets. Mr. Giuliani’s … refusal to let some reporters examine the laptop, cast a pall over the story — as did The Post’s reporting, which… could not prove that Joe Biden had been involved in his son’s activities.

PR Takeaways:  Don’t muck up the timing, message and coordination of your campaign

The article reports that the WSJ was starting to get cold feet because of uncertainty about a direct connection to Joe Biden; also, they were not thrilled that Trump mentioned the upcoming story in conference call.

PR Takeaways:  Don’t get ahead of your story; don’t promise more than you can deliver; and for crying out loud, don‘t piss off your top media target by blabbing about it in advance

Ultimately, the WSJ did published a “brief item” which reported that the central claim of Joe Biden’s involvement was unproven.

Another interesting takeaway is the article’s conclusion that the traditional media gatekeepers are still the arbiters of big stories:

The… failed attempt to sway the election is partly just another story revealing the chaotic, threadbare quality of the Trump operation… But it’s also about a larger shift in the American media, one in which the gatekeepers appear to have returned after a long absence.

By 2015, the old gatekeepers had entered a kind of crisis of confidence, believing they couldn’t control the online news cycle any better than King Canute could control the tides. 

But the last two weeks have proved the opposite: that the old gatekeepers, like The Journal, can still control the agenda. It turns out there is a big difference between WikiLeaks and establishment media coverage of WikiLeaks, a difference between a Trump tweet and an article about it…

Yeah, I’m not sure about this one.  It is reading a lot into one episode, and is like trying to prove a negative; an all-too-convenient conclusion for a major media columnist. 

How can we possibly know what would have happened if the WSJ embraced the story in a more full-throated way?  Would that really have driven a true October surprise?

It may have helped.  But the real reasons the story did not take off may have more to do with our polarized environment in which many distrust news, especially anything that seems ginned up.

Plus, how can you surprise when everyone is waiting and watching for a surprise?  It really is hard to sneak an explosive scoop by these days and orchestrate its release – there are so many ways for a surprise or stealth launch to leak or be sniffed out.

And did I mention that there’s SO MUCH DAMNED NOISE we are drowning in and real, earth shattering news, like existential threats of biblical proportions crowding the headlines?

These things all add to the challenge of getting big news to take off.

Final PR Takeaways:  Get top-tier media to cover your news first, it could make a difference.   And, what the heck, consider launching your October surprise in September; that might help too.

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