In the usual course of political events, when a president announces a willingness to have a face-to-face summit with a foreign leader with whom he has had a frosty relationship historically, the media will queue up guys like me to offer the advice we'd give the Leader of the Free World to a) make that meeting happen and b) make it productive.
"Guys like me" in my case does not mean policy expert or analyst, seasoned diplomat or steely political negotiator the likes of which President Kennedy surrounded himself with during the Cuban Missile Crisis. I'm just a lowly, lowly PR guy, if I may paraphrase Steven Seagal in "Under Siege" -- so my counsel to President Trump in the wake of his telling Reuters last week that he would be willing to sit down with Kim Jong Un over North Korea's nuclear program would be restricted to how best to communicate about such a meeting to the press and how to communicate in such a meeting with Kim. Of course, nothing with President Trump, love him or something sizably less than that, is "the usual course of political events" – so these tips are offered knowing full well he would never take heed of them because, well, his entire political career is built on defying the "usual course of" ... fill in the blank.
But, good communications strategy is an irrefutable law, like gravity, for the rest of us, even if our president finds himself mostly living outside its atmosphere. So I'm pressing on with my three tips for President Trump if he really does hope to ease tensions with North Korea by sitting down with Kim. If he disregards them, perhaps you'll find them helpful the next time you're in a face-to-face with a professional rival.
Hit the reset button. There is boilingly bad blood between Trump and Kim that will suffocate any sit-down like a damp duvet if it isn't defused. Apologies aren't coming from either one of them. Now, generally I would argue that saying "I'm sorry" is an enormous PR advantage because it is an underutilized gesture in our culture and a great indicator of humility. You position yourself as the bigger man or woman by acknowledging you are an imperfect man or woman – which everyone already knows, anyway. But in this case I'm OK with President Trump not admitting he was wrong to mock Kim on Twitter as "Little Rocket Man" or call him "short and fat" or say his own nuclear button is "much bigger" than the North Korean leader's. Acknowledging a weakness, even an obvious one, is not the best strategic foot to put forward when you're trying to negotiate something as touchy as a nuclear arms understanding. The best negotiations of this stripe are done from positions of strength, and for good or ill, especially in dealing with different cultural understandings of what apologizing connotes, it's best not to cede any ground – even if it's just rhetorical.
That said, President Trump could, and should, quite forcefully, in fact, signal that it's a new day in which the distractions of the past are being set aside and he is prepared to talk turkey, and talk tough if need be, about what the U.S. will and will not abide when it comes to North Korea's nuclear aspirations and capabilities. There is no need for the president to walk back what he's said if he delineates a clear line about how that was then and this is now. If he truly wants to move forward under a new dynamic with Kim that drips not with content for SNL skits but serious policymaking, he must signal saber-rattling was playtime. This is work time. Let's get down to problem-solving.
Realize having a meeting doesn't signal weakness or demand a show of strength. It just means you want to assess and ideally solve a problem. Much has been made by pundits about what agreeing to a mano a mano with a dictator like Kim would mean about the sanctity of the presidential bully pulpit, legitimizing oppressive regimes, etc. This is actually the perfect PR opportunity for Trump as the maverick's maverick, the president who doesn't sail the ship of state along its "usual course." He should tell the press, "Previous administrations may never have even sat down with North Korea. But today's world is one where yesterday's rules don't ensure us a more secure tomorrow, and my responsibility as president is to make that safer future a reality. So I am willing to break with convention to address threats wherever they may be and neutralize them before they become too severe to stop. Make no mistake: I will not be bartering with North Korea during this discussion. There will be no horse-trading going on that could jeopardize peace in America or around the world. On that point I am resolute."
Win one for the Gipper. President Trump and President Reagan have one thing in common: They earned a good chunk of their pre-White House fame through entertainment, Reagan as one of the top B-movie actors of the '40s and '50s, Trump as Hollywood's go-to spokesbillionaire (WrestleMania!) even before landing the Apprentice/Celebrity Apprentice hosting gig. The similarities grind to a cartoon-sound-effect halt there. Reagan as president was the Great Communicator, the avuncular elder statesmen who talked tough to the Communists to win the Cold War but soothingly to the people about the progress he made each step of the way. Trump? He's got two modes, usually irrespective of his audience: bombast, and bombast with a jolt of NOS—that stuff they use to give the engines a quick blast in the Fast and the Furious movies.
My last bit of counsel to President Trump about any meetings he might have with Kim Jong Un would be to remember that many Americans, those who voted for him and those who didn't, are feeling a little uneasy about North Korea right now. The Twitter wars with Kim unnerve them – and there are very real concerns that we are at risk of nuclear attack. Talking straight-no-chaser behind closed doors with Kim is the right move; so is being reassuring and -- dare I say it?—presidential in communicating his intentions should such a meeting get docketed and in relating the details of said meeting should it take place. These are jumpy times in America – arguments and uncertainty abound – and if there is just one area in which the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. should embrace the usual course of events followed by prior tenants, it would be most valuable in offering a steadying presence in word and deed.
And not just regarding North Korea.
Gary Schneeberger is president of ROAR, a public relations firm that helps individuals and organizations engage audiences with the boldness and creative clarity that ensures they are heard. His first book, Bite the Dog: Build a PR Strategy to Make News That Matters, will be released in February.