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The Trump-Taliban Meeting and the PR of Forgiveness

Updated: Dec 21, 2019

By Ashlie Castaldo

On Sunday, September 9, President Donald J. Trump tweeted out a statement that a meeting between himself and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani at Camp David, along with their senior staff and those of the Taliban, had been cancelled. According to Kevin Liptak and Kaitlan Collins of CNN, this summit was to be the culmination of nine prior talks and 10 months of peace treaty planning (CNNPolitics, Sept. 9th, 2019). The political stakes could not be higher especially when dealing with unresolved tension from terrorism, oppression and corruption. However, in this situation, it is important to connect President Trump to Donald Trump the showman, if we really want to examine the depth of this ethical failure. In the future this will likely become an example to budding entrepreneurs just what not to do in public relations strategy.

It would not be a far fetched conclusion to draw that US citizens would be horrified at such an event: the meeting itself was slapdash together in less than a week, and set for the anniversary of the largest terrorist attack on our shores. Vice President Pence and NSA John Bolton even held opposition against the President (CNNPolitics, Sept. 9th, 2019), and even agreed that it would come across as if 9/11 did not mean anything or that the sacrifices of our military didn’t matter. But from a scan of a variety of media sources, I noticed two PR pitfalls that were being ignored:

1) Millennial effect and influence will be directly targeted. As is, Trump has a limited core base of support, and GOP support from those under 50 is fast dwindling. The Millennial Generation is comprised of individuals born between 1984-1994, and 9/11 has been used as a landmark event for that group in many sociological pieces. September 11th signifies a time before heightened security and the global identity that follows it. By Trump extending such an olive branch by inviting political enemies onto national soil, it is largely perceived as 9/11 not being a big deal. This becomes personalized by millennials as they have no political worth/value. I cannot stress how important it is as entrepreneurs to actively focus on your targeted demographics but without attacking others. Successful businesses are driven by intentionally focused action, not by spraying attention seeking ammo. The goal is to have any potential partner/client ask why THEY need to have what you are selling, not to push them towards a fight. President Trump was so excited for a win that he did not consider persuasion or moving beyond attraction from the Aghan President to investment.

2) Discussions of competency and mental aptitude will take place. It would be personally worse for Trump if it was perceived that he forgot about, or even worse, could not grasp the cultural significance. Success in business and power is defined by strategic thinking and organization. None of this comes across as if Trump had thought through what was to be gained or lost in this process. As stated in the article, Secretary of State Pompeo had success in these ongoing talks until the President acted rashly and took ownership (CNNPolitics, Sept. 9th, 2019).  Safety plans should be created and failure needs to be minimized as much as ethically possible. Donald Trump publicized the failure of the event and now put the power in the Taliban’s hands. Patience is key when setting aside smaller wins for the large ones. By having this meeting on sacred Presidential ground after encroaching on our national boundaries, we have subconsciously told the Taliban that they have publicly won the fight.

This is not to say though that forgiveness is not a bold or beneficial PR move. There is a reason that Presidents take the time to pardon individuals near the end of their terms: it is an act of grace, but also serves as imagery of a ruler giving power back to the people. By emphasizing democratic consensus a narrative can be controlled and chaos minimized. It puts a nice rosy glow to falling poll numbers. This works in much the same way in the business world, where a sincere apology can move the news cycle away from a gaffe faster and a shoddy PR apology could reinforce a bad act into meme lore. But forgiveness is only clever when sincere acknowledgement and atonement takes place. As consumers of media and patriotism, we are aware of the need for boundaries and discourse, and we will not be fooled into fake shows of reconciliation. 

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