Plagiarism? Or Message Discipline?

Can you plagiarize yourself?

That was the question raised by a recent Newsweek article, originally headlined “Ivanka Trump Plagiarizes One of Her Own Speeches in India”.

The headline immediately reminds the reader of last year’s widely panned debacle at the 2016 Republican National Convention, in which future First Lady Melania Trump lifted entire passages nearly verbatim from a Michelle Obama speech.

Speechwriters routinely walk a perilously thin line on what actually constitutes plagiarism – it’s one of the inherently weird parts of a job putting words in someone else’s mouth. But this particular comparison is especially not fair to Ivanka Trump, who delivered an address this month on empowering women at the Global Entrepreneurship Summit in Hyderabad.  

As Newsweek’s Chris Riotta writes, “…it appeared the breadth of her talking points were recycled from a previous speech she gave during a foreign trip earlier this year. Several lines the 36-year-old delivered Tuesday had been directly pulled from her poorly attended November 2 speech in Tokyo, where she attended the World Assembly for Women alongside Japanese President Shinzo Abe.”

As Riotta points out, several lines do appear as nearly identical in both speeches: “When women work, it creates a unique multiplier effect. Women are more likely than men to hire other women, and to give them access to capital, mentorship and networks. Women are also more likely to reinvest their income back in their families and communities."

I’m no fan of the Trump administration. But this is not plagiarism. This is staying on message.

Riotta goes on to note that re-using the same lines is a common practice for public figures, suggesting that the significance of the re-used lines is to underscore women’s economic participation as a top priority for Ms. Trump.  

However, Newsweek knows the reality that the casual reader in 2017 is unlikely to read far enough along to entertain that point. In the age of Twitter, most readers will skim past a headline associating Ivanka Trump with plagiarizing – and will continue to skim by, having their pre-determined notions about either the First Daughter or the press corps affirmed. Meanwhile, other sites quickly latch onto the headline as well – using it as a chance to bash her or attack the media’s scrutiny of the administration.

Many prominent voices on Twitter quickly called foul on the idea that a speaker can steal from themselves, leading to Newsweek amending the accusatory “plagiarize” in the headline to “recycle” – a softer term, if no less accusatory in the suggestion that Trump had phoned in the work.

As a speechwriter, my take on this is simple – Ivanka Trump (and her speechwriters) did nothing wrong. But when playing at this level, they should be more careful in order to better serve their boss. The writers obviously conducted extensive research in tailoring Trump’s remarks to be relevant for each country. The unfortunate reality is that hours of painstaking work will always be ignored in the face of an easy “gotcha” headline.

Riotta, whose beat at Newsweek is focused on covering the Trump family, is no doubt knee-deep in examples of his subjects dubiously flouting the law and American political convention. This is one particular instance in which his watch-dog instincts have proven overwrought.

As an in-house speechwriter for an Obama administration official focused on renewable energy and climate issues, I helped my boss prepare for as many as 10-12 speaking events a week. Unlike the comparatively broader portfolio for, say, a President or a corporate executive, we tended to be speaking on a more limited set of issues. We might be giving a speech on solar power one week and on biofuels the next, but our core portfolio of clean energy issues was consistent.

And so was our message.

Much of my work was in tailoring our message to best resonate with different audiences. That did not mean throwing out our messaging from scratch every time we had a new event. Over time, our team developed a standard stump speech that we had essentially perfected. Our boss could recite it from heart – allowing us more freedom to experiment and tailor it, now that we mastered a general structure of our story.

Over time, I could recite large portions by heart – or I wouldn’t even need to necessarily write parts of it in full. I could merely add a cue for my boss to “Tell the solar vet story” and he would launch into a near-perfected anecdote that he had delivered countless times before.

As the Newsweek article points out, this is standard operating procedure – most political candidates may vary their “topper”, or introduction of their speech, but essentially deliver the same standard speech everywhere they go. Not only does this practice allow speakers to refine their pitch, but it also negates the need to reinvent the wheel needlessly when most audiences will only see a particular speaker once.

And that brings us to the need for caution at the Trump speechwriting shop. Presidents, celebrities, and extremely high-profile figures operate under a different set of rules – one in which the media is indeed subjecting their every remark to extreme scrutiny. CNN’s Fareed Zakaria received similar treatment when he delivered very similar commencement speeches at Harvard and Duke.  Zakaria doubtlessly assumed that it made little sense to prepare two completely separate sets of graduation wisdom for similar audiences who would not be sitting through the same ceremony twice. What he failed to consider is the new media landscape we are living in – in which the real audience isn’t out there in the stage.

The lesson is to exercise caution if you are a speaker in the harsh light of media attention. The public relishes nothing like a story proving someone to be lazy – or, even better, a cheat.

One of the most important responsibilities of a speechwriter is to ensure that a given audience feels as though the speaker is fully present and has committed to learning something about who they are. It may make practical sense to repurpose messaging for a nearly identical event – but it can also rub an organization the wrong way if they feel that they are being viewed as interchangeable.

There are a number of tactics you can use to build a consistent message without giving offense or rewriting your entire presentation. One approach is to directly reference a prior event – for example, Ms. Trump could have said, “Just weeks ago, I spoke at a summit in Japan where they face many of the same questions. They are also very focused on the fundamental question of how to ensure that women are fully able to participate in the modern economy. In fact, I see this all over the world. Regardless of the cultural differences that we often dwell upon, we all face common challenges in unleashing all the creativity of everyone in our societies. I’ll tell you what I said to them…:”

At that point, she could re-use echoes of the message from the previous script – and she could do it willy-nilly, because she has essentially attributed her words to, well, herself.

And, of course, her team could always use anti-plagiarism software. Not a bad idea before the next RNC.