Attention speechwriters and PR folks: there are lessons to be learned from Melania Trump

July 20, 2016

I have to admit that I was more than a little interested in how the risk would play out.

Putting the Republican hopeful/presumed/self-acclaimed – now confirmed –  candidate’s wife in front of the podium on the opening night of the convention was…unconventional.

At least it was for Melania Trump.

Preparation for Monday night’s speech would have been daunting and nail-biting for even the most seasoned of us all: speechwriter, public speaker or consummate politician.

It was the political convention groupie equivalent of Kate Middleton walking down the aisle of the Abbey, with literally millions of eyes fixed on a woman in a white dress.

The difference?

One was expected to utter words used by others. The other, not so much (unless maybe by Nancy Reagan).

Gaggles of pundits and critics (and even supporters) are saying she should have been more careful. Nay, that Trump’s team should have known better to be more careful.

I don’t know whether Republicans are cringing more at the fact that coverage of her speech has turned to plagiarism – or that the lines in question were lifted from a Democrat’s speech.

Whether she had true inspiration from Michelle Obama or not – whether it was an intentional gaffe or not – the fallout today needs be a sharp reminder in the PR industry.

In a speech that high profile, you do your homework and respect your sources – and check against what previous First Lady hopefuls have said.

Of course you research what’s been said before. Yes, you get fired up as a writer by other people’s words. But then you edit your drafts with a new person’s voice in your head.

On the corporate side, sometimes you need to align with what your competitors are saying, in order to stay in the game. Sometimes you need to repeat, repeat, repeat (7 times!) the same message so it sticks.

Inspiration can come from many places, so get creative. Swing your analogies to be relevant to your audience or location. Include a source when necessary because it may actually strengthen the story.

Just don’t be lazy and write it word for word without citing the source if there is one.

Because someone, somewhere in a basement near you, on break from Pokemon Go, will call out that your client didn’t think up ‘to be or not to be‘ on his own.

The other element in all of this is managing client expectations. Many people, supposedly like Melania, actually want to pen their own speeches and messages. And that’s great – but comms advisors need to do just that: advise.

If it looks like a duck and talks like a duck that just quacked last week, it’s your job to point that out and prevent the damage.

The reputational hit is far greater than a few retweets of a one-liner in the moment. It could mean general embarrassment, which is mainly what the Trump team is dealing with – just on a very large scale. Worst case it could mean copyright infringement.

Journalists are not immune to the scrutiny: just look at the recent cases involving the Globe and Mail’s own Margret Wente. She is still a columnist though.

Politicians can sometimes skate through too – but there have been those who have faced harsher punishment. Joe Biden, the current Vice President of the United States, was accused of plagiarizing during a speech in the 1988 Presidential election. He was forced to withdraw as a result of the firestorm.

The Donald will emerge on this, pivoting with a baseball bat, in Donald style. His team has already started and in a few days, this will be more of an “oops” that loses its legs when the next issue hits.

But whether they like it or not, Melania went from being praised for poise (which she had, no question there) to a stealer of soundbites, who will be taken a bit less seriously next time.


Editor’s note: this article was fact-checked.

Attention speechwriters and PR folks: there are lessons to be learned from Melania Trump