Clinton and Trump Stay True to Their Personal Brands in First Debate

There are many lessons learned from last evening’s first presidential debate of the 2016 campaign. We’ll narrow our focus to the PR lessons.

Before the debate, some "experts" were advising Republican candidate Donald Trump to tone down his usual blustery public speaking style in order to sway undecided voters. Some urged Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton to attack vociferously, shedding her calming image as a champion of the poor and the middle class and as an experienced governmental actor. Neither candidate listened to the so-called experts.

What They Wore

One's appearance is a critical component of any visual sport, as televised debates are. “Both candidates looked the part. Power red was a great PR choice for Clinton, as was the solid blue tie for Trump,” says Jennifer Vickery of National Strategies PR.

Body Language

In March 2016, PR News Pro asked communications consultant Jonathan Rick of the Jonathan Rick Group about Trump’s habits on the podium. When others are speaking, Rick said then, Trump squints, smirks and scowls. And “he’s constantly playing with the microphone.” Months on the campaign trail haven’t changed Trump’s habits much, as the split-screen shots used during last night’s debate showed beautifully. The scowls, squints and smirks were in full force. We didn’t see a lot of microphone toggling, though.

When he spoke months ago on his way to the Republican nomination, Trump would flail with his arms, Rick and Donald Khoury, a body-language specialist, said in March. Rick and Khoury noted Trump’s use of his right hand when he speaks. Both described in detail how he curves his thumb inward and bunches his fingers, using his closed hand to slice through the air, as if literally hammering home a point. If last night was evidence, months of campaigning have slightly softened the hammer blow.

“Both candidates seem to be learning from coaching,” Vickery says. “Trump’s facial expressions were not as exaggerated as in some of his previous debates, and Clinton’s laughter or cackle seemed to be quieted down as well.”

Verbal Statements

The bold statements that Trump has been making on his way to the nomination continued last night.

In fact, an in-control Trump was the Democrats’ nightmare. As Frank Bruni wrote in the New York Times on Sept. 25, “What if Trump keeps an uncharacteristically steady hand on the wheel and never crests 60 miles per hour? What if there’s no roar of the engine, no screech of the tires, no fire?” Bruni wrote that a calm Trump during the debate could have a “positive impact” on his candidacy.

In contrast, Clinton assumed the role that Trump’s Republican opponents occupied during primary season, but with an important twist. While many Republican hopefuls took Trump’s attacks to heart—or their body language made them look as if they did—Clinton, for the most part, stood tall, remained calm and chuckled occasionally as the attacks came. This was Media Training 101 to be sure. She also hit back a few times; Clinton engaged Trump at the margins, putting her political experience on display.

In sum, both candidates’ brand promises were fulfilled Monday night. Despite months of doing things "wrong" with his body language and rhetoric, Trump is the Republican presidential candidate. And depending on whose poll you trust, this political outsider is even or winning. In short, let him be bold, wave his arms, squint and smirk. It’s worked for him. Why change now? An important corollary: This oversized personal style is Trump’s thing. He’s comfortable with it and it works for him. It might not work for your executive.

Similarly for Clinton, she is her party’s nominee, despite the efforts of another candidate who didn’t read the Media Training manual—the unkempt, arm-waving, head-shaking Bernie Sanders. Clinton's mix of calmness, experience and a touch of humor have worked for her. It’s her brand.

Both candidates kept to the authentic mix that got them this far. The two brands are on the shelf or, if you like, being offered at your favorite online store. It soon will be time to choose.

Follow Seth Arenstein: @skarenstein