Trump effect takes on new meaning
Call it reverse Trump effect? There was a buzz in Palm Beach County earlier this year when the newly inaugurated President Donald Trump began spending weekends here. Some local business leaders speculated the presidential spotlight on the Winter White House could generate more tourism, investment or real estate deals.
The optimism had a name: The “Trump effect.”
But as nearly two dozen charities have announced they will move events from Mar-a-Lago and national CEOs have distanced themselves from Trump publicly following the violence in Charlottesville, Va., leaders in the local business community are not talking Trump boom. In fact, they are not talking much at all. The one group that has been most outspoken, the Palm Beach Chamber of Commerce, has done so in a divided fashion.
With the 2017-18 winter season just a couple of months away, a Trump effect now seems hollow.
“I’m not sure there ever was a Trump effect,” West Palm Beach Mayor Jeri Muoio said earlier this month. “I think there was a lot of hope that his fame would bring more businesses to our county and our city. I haven’t seen that happen. I think we’re certainly more wellknown as a city as a result, but I’m not sure that has precipitated more businesses coming in.”
That was not the sentiment earlier this year. For example, Kelly Smallridge, president and CEO of the Business Development Board of Palm Beach County, said she hoped Trump’s Winter White House “has a major halo effect” that “created a significant buzz” for the county. At the time, just before Trump hosted China’s President Xi Jinping in Palm Beach for an April summit, Smallridge said three financial service firms were looking at expanding to the area.
In light of controversy surrounding charities hosting events at Mara-Lago, area business leaders have remained silent on the prospects or benefits from Trump’s visits. Smallridge did not respond to requests for comment for this article. Neither did a number of other chamber and business leaders contacted.
‘A referendum’ on Trump?
Tom Kelleher, professor and chair of the Department of Advertising at the University of Florida, said the silence is understandable, and probably wise. While national CEOs may see condemnation of Trump’s statements more in the abstract, local business leaders could, for example, see “a more direct impact” if they speak out on Mar-a-Lago, Kelleher said.
“In a way, it’s one thing if you’re directly reacting to Charlottesville and the president’s comments on Charlottesville,” Kelleher said. “You’re coming out against neo-Nazis, and you’re coming out against white supremacists.”
And while that may not be such a risky prospect, a Palm Beach business owner commenting on whether or not to hold events at Mar-a-Lago could be.
“It’s almost a referendum on President Trump in general, and people don’t want to get into alienating his group of supporters,” Kelleher said. Businesses on a local level also stand to risk the valuable contacts they’ve potentially spent years building, Kelleher added.
“You realize, if you stay out of it, no one is going to hate you for it,” he said. “You’re in danger of drawing a strong negative response.”
Kelleher noted that distinction, of not making a political statement, is important for organizations to consider — whether they are moving to or from Mar-a-Lago, or commenting on the Trump effect.
“I think the reluctance to the business community is, ‘Why would we want to get into a political battle that doesn’t relate to something we do?’” he said.
Politics, logistics and cash
Longtime South Florida public relations professional Valerie Zucker, of Zucker Lewis Media Group, said that the media is “putting too much emphasis” on Trump’s politics, creating a perception issue for charities and businesses.
“Maybe they (charities) really don’t think poorly of the venue or of the president, but they think people may raise an eyebrow,” she said. “It’s because of perception and image. That’s sort of what the president is dealing with here.”
Zucker, who is going into her 25th year in public relations, said any good work Trump is doing is overshadowed when he does or says something controversial.
To speak or not to speak
Those thinking about speaking out also have a strong local risk-benefit analysis: the case of the Palm Beach Chamber of Commerce. On Aug. 17, chamber Executive Director Laurel Baker called out charities hosting galas at Mar-a-Lago.
“If you have a conscience, you’re really condoning bad behavior by continuing to be there,” Baker said. “Many say it’s the dollars (raised at the events) that count. Yes. But the integrity of any or organization rests on their sound decisions and stewardship.”
But those comments were then disavowed. Chamber President Carrie Bradburn wrote a letter of apology to Mar-a-Lago saying that Baker’s comments reflected her own views and did not represent the opinion of the chamber.
There was one other chamber that has spoken out, but only to emphatically state that it had not spoken out. The Chamber of Commerce of the Palm Beaches, which is not the same as the Palm Beach Chamber of Commerce, fielded tweets from people who mistook it for the board that employs Baker.
Palm Beach County Mayor Mary Lou Berger said she believes there still is a Trump effect — but not the same one seen when the president was visiting Mar-a-Lago earlier this year.
“Well, look what has happened with the nonprofits pulling out,” Berger said when asked how the Trump effect has changed. “That tells a big story right there, that they’re pulling out from events that they traditionally hold at Mar-a-Lago.”
Staff writers Antonio Fins and Aleese Kopf contributed to this report.