Laughter isn’t just good medicine—it’s also a PR boost.
In December 2016, comedian-turned-U.S. senator Al Franken made an astute observation in The New York Times Magazine about President Donald Trump: He doesn’t ever laugh.
Trump’s absence of public mirth has caught the attention of other notables, too—most recently David Litt, a speechwriter for former president Barack Obama. Litt wrote that Trump’s inability to deliver “gracious one-liners” left him “ill at ease in front of all but the most adoring audiences.”
That’s not to say Trump hasn’t charmed audiences in other ways. He also has elicited laughter, but often at the expense of others. That has provided fodder for commentators, who have remarked on the irony of a president with no ability to laugh at himself, yet has a penchant for mocking others.
For public figures, something is lost with the absence of laughter. A commander in chief who rarely laughs can give PR pros insight into the crucial role that humor plays in cultivating positive bonds and boosting well-being—along with what you can stand to lose without it.
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A sense of humor and a bit of self-deprecation is important for high-profile figures not simply as a tool for comic relief, but also as a way to survive moments of anxiety, engender goodwill among critics and strengthen bonds with supporters.
Humor can be a unifying force to help disarm a reluctant audience with its guard up for political or personal reasons—or over reservations about your organization.
It can help you rise above a partisan divide, demonstrate objectivity and connect to detractors. A joke can provide common ground with “the unconverted” who might find your message unpalatable. Acknowledging a vulnerability with witty self-deprecation can also help people relate to you or your organization’s executive.
According to Psychology Today, humor can help people cope with stress and adversity, soften the grieving process and ease potentially awkward interactions. Laughter has physical benefits involving circulation, the lungs and muscles. Funny people can also reap the awards of positive attention and admiration.
Laughing at yourself can help ease an embarrassing moment, as demonstrated by actress Jennifer Lawrence. She tripped on her way to receive an Oscar for Best Actress, saying during her speech, “You guys are just standing up because I fell and it’s embarrassing, but thank you.”
You can also cross a line, as evidenced possibly by Virgin Atlantic’s response to a suspected “mile-high club” incident. The company’s attempt to poke fun at a couple caught emerging from an airplane bathroom was met with mixed responses:
You might think that laughing weakens or undermines your authority, but a consistently stern countenance can solidify an image of someone who lacks emotional diversity and self-awareness—as does a disapproving resting face.
The best thing you can do is take work in stride, inject levity into heavy situations (when appropriate) and avoid taking yourself so seriously. Humor is a powerful way to capture an audience. PR pros’ focus is frequently on hearts and minds, but you shouldn’t forget that the belly has its place, too.
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