Kara Alaimo


Melania Trump’s popularity rises but she needs some media savvy

Professional communications advice would help the first lady avoid embarrassing mistakes, argues PR expert Kara Alaimo

Melania Trump’s popularity rises but she needs some media savvy

WHILE US President Donald Trump’s approval ratings hit a new low this month, his wife’s are on the rise.

A recent CNN/ORC poll found that 52% of Americans like Melania Trump — an increase of 16% since her husband took office.

That far exceeds the favourability ratings of first ladies such as Michelle Obama and Laura Bush in their first years.

But it’s unlikely that Melania Trump will be able to stay popular without help. So far, she hasn’t hired a press secretary. That’s really odd.

Every first lady since Jackie Kennedy had one by this point in her husband’s administration, according to Kate Andersen Brower, author of First Women: The Grace and Power of America’s Modern First Ladies.

As any public-relations professional will tell you, prominent people have two options: To try to shape the narrative about themselves, or to let others do it for them. But Brower says that currently, reporters for major media outlets can’t even get their requests to interview the first lady answered.

“There are so many requests coming into Melania right now and there’s no one there to decide what’s worth doing and what’s worth skipping,” she said.

“It just leaves this big hole which people fill with their own interpretations of her. They’re judging whether she’s smiling enough and what she’s wearing. But if she had a press secretary, she could do very coordinated interviews with media outlets to shape her image the way she wants to be seen.”

For example, Brower said former first lady Michelle Obama’s team did a particularly great job of making her relatable to the American people. “The mom dancing on ‘Jimmy Fallon’ was a way to really endear her to the public,” she said.

“People want to feel like they could be in the carpool line with the first lady. They want to feel that connection.”

Brower says Melania Trump’s challenge is especially difficult because “her great wealth and really unattainable beauty” make it hard for everyday Americans to relate to her. But a press secretary could help Trump talk about aspects of her life that ordinary citizens understand, like raising her son.

A spokesperson could also help her figure out how to effectively harness the powerful platform she commands. Brower says every first lady since Lady Bird Johnson has used her position to promote social causes.

“Lady Bird Johnson said that, as first lady, you can pick up the phone and change someone’s life,” she said.

Americans are unlikely to love a first lady who seems indifferent to the tremendous opportunity she has to do good. Melania Trump, who hasn’t moved to the White House yet because her son is finishing school in New York, has been largely invisible since her husband took office.

She did, however, read to kids in a hospital and host a White House lunch about women’s empowerment in honour of International Women’s Day this month.

A good press secretary would help Trump research and think through the issues she chooses to champion — and be sure she follows through. In particular, it’s important to consider how promoting particular causes could invite negative attention.

For example, in early November, Trump promised that if her husband were elected, she would use her platform as first lady to combat cyberbulling. Any good communication professional would have advised her against this.

To start with, her husband is widely considered the cyberbully-in-chief. For example, after an 18-year-old college student criticised him at a rally, the then-candidate took to Twitter to call her an “arrogant young woman”.

The young woman received threats of violent assault for more than a year. Any cyberbullying initiative the first lady undertakes will only draw attention to this irony. Second, a professional communicator watching out for her husband’s interests would likely advise against getting involved in the anti-bullying community because, as reporter Stephanie Mencimer explained in Mother Jones, the community is largely run by advocates for LGBT youth.

That would alienate conservative evangelicals, an important group of voters for the president, who view such initiatives as a veiled attempt to promote LGBT rights.

Beyond that, Melania Trump seems to not be following through on her pledge. Last month, Mencimer contacted key figures in the anti-cyber-bullying community and found that no one has heard from her or her staff.

Perhaps the only thing worse for the first lady’s reputation than viewing her platform insouciantly is making promises and then breaking them.

A professional communicator would also help Trump avoid other mistakes, such as her plagiarism of Michelle Obama in her July speech at the Republican National Convention.

An effective East Wing press secretary could be one of the most helpful people to the West Wing. Lauren Wright, author of On Behalf of the President: Presidential Spouses and White House Communications Strategy Today, found that first ladies cannot only improve their husbands’ images but also help build support for their policy agendas. In fact, sometimes their ability to command attention exceeds that of their husbands themselves.

Melania Trump holds a staggering amount of potential power to improve both her own reputation and the world. Here’s hoping she finds someone to help her wield it.

Kara Alaimo is an assistant professor of public relations at Hofstra University and author of Pitch, Tweet, or Engage on the Street: How to Practice Global Public Relations and Strategic Communication.

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