Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump is no stranger—nor foe—of controversy.
On Saturday, Trump tweeted an image slamming Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. The tweet contained Clinton’s face in front of a pile of money, along with a six-pointed star that read: “Most corrupt candidate ever!”
It didn’t take long for the tweet to evoke rage, CNN reported:
Critics erupted with complaints that the graphic evoked anti-Semitic imagery and the Trump campaign refused to answer questions about the tweet even as reports emerged that the image had been posted to an anti-Semitic, white supremacist message board 10 days earlier.
Here’s Mic’s report of the featured image:
The image was previously featured on 8chan’s /pol/ — an Internet message board for the alt-right, a digital movement of neo-Nazis, anti-Semites and white supremacists newly emboldened by the success of Trump’s rhetoric — as early as June 22, over a week before Trump’s team tweeted it. Though the thread where the meme was featured no longer exists, you can find it by searching the URL in Archive.is, a “time capsule of the internet” that saves unalterable text and graphic of web pages. Doing so allows you to see the thread on /pol/ as it originally existed.
Two hours later, Trump’s team replaced the tweet with the following edited image:
On Monday, Trump issued the following statement:
These false attacks by Hillary Clinton trying to link the Star of David with a basic star, often used by sheriffs who deal with criminals and criminal behavior, showing an inscription that says “Crooked Hillary is the most corrupt candidate ever” with anti-Semitism is ridiculous. Clinton, through her surrogates, is just trying to divert attention from the dishonest behavior of herself and her husband.
The real questions are, why was Bill Clinton meeting secretly with the US Attorney General on her case and where are the 33,000 missing emails and all of the other information missing from her case – Why are there so many lies?
Trump’s social media director Dan Scavino made a statement as well:
The social media graphic used this weekend was not created by the campaign nor was it sourced from an anti-Semitic site. It was lifted from an anti-Hillary Twitter user where countless images appear.
The sheriff’s badge – which is available under Microsoft’s “shapes” – fit with the theme of corrupt Hillary and that is why I selected it.
As the Social Media Director for the campaign, I would never offend anyone and therefore chose to remove the image.
Scavino also tweeted out another thing:
For the MSM to suggest that I am antisemite is AWFUL. I proudly celebrate holidays w/ my wife’s amazing Jewish family for the past 16 years.
— Dan Scavino Jr. (@DanScavino) July 5, 2016
Both Trump and Scavino’s statements were posted to Facebook:
The statements did little to contain the firestorm.
On Tuesday, The Wall Street Journal reported that House Speaker Paul Ryan criticized Trump and his team:
Mr. Ryan said Mr. Trump’s campaign needs to “clean up” its use of social media after Mr. Trump’s Twitter account on Saturday posted, then later deleted, an image of Mrs. Clinton next to a six-pointed red star interpreted by many as a Star of David, which is closely associated with Judaism.
“Look, anti-Semitic images, they’ve got no place in presidential campaigns. Candidates should know that,” Mr. Ryan said Tuesday on a Wisconsin radio show hosted by Charlie Sykes. “I don’t know what flunky put this up there, they obviously gotta fix that.”
Others called foul on the mea culpas. In an open letter, Observer reporter Dana Schwartz wrote the following:
[Trump] and his campaign deny that the image—which had been found, previous to Trump’s tweet, on a white supremacist internet forum—has any Jewish implications at all. Instead of acknowledging the obvious, he and his campaign used it as an opportunity to undermine the free media in the style of the most dangerous regimes in history, and mock those like me, who had been getting strangers on the Internet telling her to put her head in the oven for the past day and a half.
Apologies vs. excuses
Meagan Ewton, PR coordinator for Rogers State University, says that the Trump campaign’s focus should have been on the message’s interpretation—not its intent—and a quick apology would have quelled the flames.
“The best thing to do in this kind of situation is to listen, apologize and address: Listen to the feedback of the audience, apologize for the unintended message and address the message’s damaging components.”
Joel Renner, manager of digital strategy and career systems for The George Washington University’s School of Business, agrees and said the same should apply for future mishaps.
“Find out what happened internally, apologize in a short tweet,” Renner says. “Move on and stay on message as you move on. The apology needs to be short and sweet and immediately followed by a barrage of on-message posts.”
Giving excuses instead of a mea culpa can incite more backlash, says Shawn Wood, Ketchum’s managing account supervisor of digital strategy:
Blaming clip art or Microsoft shapes reads more like of an inept excuse instead of an acceptance of blame, which in turn, creates the Olympic-sized broad jump to conclusions. Even in times of political unrest and vitriol, people can be much more forgiving when you admit wrongdoing rather than avoid it.
Michelle Garrett, PR consultant and writer at Garrett Public Relations, says that playing the blame game can make a crisis bigger:
Laying blame on anyone—particularly the media—is turning it into an even bigger issue. Taking a straightforward approach to apologize—with no blaming—would’ve been a better way to contain the situation.
Ewton agrees and said that’s what happened with Scavino’s tweet:
Rather than apologize for using the graphic, Scavino worked to correct the audience’s interpretation. This kind of communication has the potential to alienate audiences by making them feel their feedback is neither valuable nor acceptable, while doing nothing to address the original concern.
Avoiding your “Trump” moment
Though Trump often makes headlines for his comments and tweets, situations like this happen more often that PR and social media pros might think.
“There are countless examples of brands and individuals who created a message with the intent to inform or entertain, but the message came across as racist, ableist, sexist or otherwise out-of-touch with audiences,” Ewton says.
Catching a mistake after you tweet is often too late, too.
“Once you make that post, it’s out there for everyone to see—even it you delete it right away,” says Aaron Kilby, vice president of sales and marketing at Artisan Colour.
Renner says that if you or your team make a similar mistake with a piece of visual content, don’t try to fix the image. Instead, delete it:
Don’t edit the post; just take it down. Editing it gives a visual image to the compare and contrast and is rarely a good idea. If the graphic was created internally, then you will need to move on to the next graphic created in the style and vet it before posting.
PR and social media pros can also avoid a crisis with a proper approval process, Wood says:
There was no protocol, no multiple points of approval. If this post—obfuscated Microsoft shape and all—was seen by at least one person, a flag would have risen that would have resembled the Star of David. The [Trump campaign’s] detriment was hubris to think even the slightest action doesn’t require proofing.
Renner also suggests an approval process, and says that creating your own visuals makes it “easier to stay on message.”
Whether or not you craft your own, match your content with your messages.
“Make sure to vet your key touch points on any social post: hashtags, images, videos, links [and GIFs],” Renner says.
Ultimately, PR and social media pros should realize the impact that online content has on a brand’s reputation, Ewton says:
All content that an individual or brand shares on social media becomes a part of their public identity, which is why it is critical for social media managers to be aware of the originating source of content. Once content is shared, the reputation of the original poster has the potential to positively or negatively influence the sharer’s brand.
“Do your homework, and you will not have problems like this,” Kilby says.