Social media

Blowing his own Trump-et

Donald Trump knows Twitter. He tweets the best tweets. They’re terrific. Everyone agrees. Or rather they don’t.

Donald Trump’s Twitter habits have been the source of much debate recently, with many commentators expecting his tweets to take on a more statesman-like tone following his inauguration as the 45th President of the United States on 20 January.

It may not come as a shock to learn that they didn’t, as he tweeted multiple times about the size of his inauguration crowds (insisting they were record-breaking; they weren’t) and about deals he was making with various companies, all of which affected their share prices.

‘Using Twitter isn’t new to politics. Some politicians, regulators and government departments have a highly sophisticated social media operation,’ says Ross Melton, public affairs account executive at Instinctif Partners. ‘What is new is the off-the-cuff style: he uses Twitter like the man stuck on the delayed train would, rather than as part of the PR machinery.’

Matthias Lüfkens, Burson Marsteller’s digital practice leader EMEA, agrees: ‘He uses Twitter effectively, usually one line statements posted by himself. It’s very authentic, very personal, strongly-worded. It’s surprised many digital diplomacy observers.’

Trump’s unorthodox style came to the forefront during his election campaign, in which he went from being an almost gimmicky candidate to Republican nominee, before walking right into the Oval Office itself.

‘He is extremely different,’ says Ed McRandal, associate director at Insight Consulting Group. ‘He is a man very different to modern politicians, probably because he isn’t one. His first political job is as President of the United States. [Trump’s use of Twitter] is a good way of setting the news agenda and talking to people without the media. Twitter has a highly concentrated audience of journalists and political elites, it’s also a way of testing the water. It’s a way of distracting and setting the news agenda.’

Indeed, disrupting the news cycle has certainly proved effective. Towards the end of last year, reports surfaced about a $25 million settlement in the Trump University case, in which he was accused of defrauding more than 6,000 students, but it was Trump’s tweets about the musical Hamilton that dominated the news.

‘He’s confounded expectations at every turn,’ says McRandal. ‘It’s not that it changed people’s minds but in that the news cycle was set around Donald Trump and what he was saying. He gives the impression that he is in control and a challenger. You need to listen to Donald Trump. Platform press releases wouldn’t have the same impact.’

The lack of distance perceived between Trump and his Twitter account, no doubt, only adds to his appeal. ‘His tweets come straight from him, complete with spelling mistakes,’ adds Lüfkens. ‘He’s wielding Twitter as a powerful weapon. An announcement in a traditional press conference doesn’t have the same impact. He’s pretty good in terms of engagement. He gets lots of reactions, both positive and negative.

A tweet from the Indian Prime minister is engaged with 2,300 times on average, much less than @RealDonaldTrump. The Indian PM has twice as many followers [on Facebook], but Trump has twice as many interactions. He’s as powerful on Facebook as he is on Twitter. He’s the second most followed leader on Facebook and he’s still enjoying a massive growth on social media.’

‘The effectiveness of Trump’s style in winning electoral support is made evident by the fact that he beat the more staid and traditional media approach of the Clinton campaign – even if what he says is not always 100 per cent true,’ says Melton, who is perhaps being generous in his estimation of Trump’s use of the truth.

Whilst fake news articles undoubtedly played a part in the election, Trump is still using his Twitter account to call various news outlets FAKE NEWS, and in one case – tweeted Any negative polls are fake news, just like the CNN, ABC, NBC polls in the election. Sorry, people want border security and extreme vetting.

Truth is not as important to President Trump’s supporters as both political commentators and journalists might hope.

‘People are too caught up in Donald Trump,’ warns McRandal. ‘The political class engage with that but the average person doesn’t. They don’t care as much about whether he’s tweeting about companies, as long as he’s making their lives better off.’

Melton agrees: ‘More importantly, Trump appeals to the emotional truth of American’s daily experience. He doesn’t need to obey fact to win support of the American electorate – belief is more important. Equally, as [vice president] Mike Pence has said, people appreciate knowing what the President thinks and feels. It makes him more accessible and works with his anti-establishment appeal.’

‘It’s a bind for the press,’ says McRandal. ‘It’s increasingly frustrating. The fact that it’s from him means it’s reported on but would they report government press releases in the same way?’

More importantly, Trump appeals to the emotional truth of American’s daily experience. He doesn’t need to obey fact to win support of the American electorate – belief is more important

While it might be difficult for the press to negotiate, it has led to problems for international diplomats. How can they respond to Trump? ‘Diplomacy, on both the national and international stages, is intricate, delicate and tricky at the best of times,’ says Melton. ‘As is running a country. Summarising that in 140 characters in inevitably going to have its pitfalls, particularly when you are tweeting on an emotional whim!’

Many have taken to ‘subtweeting’ the President, making indirect statements of support to refugees and immigrants, leaving no doubt as to what they are responding to as Trump dominates the news cycle. Canadian Prime minister Justin Trudeau tweeted on the day the President’s travel ban on people from seven majority Muslim-countries was announced, To those fleeing persecution, terror & war, Canadians will welcome you, regardless of your faith. Diversity is our strength #WelcomeToCanada, with similar sentiments coming from foreign ministers in countries such as Sweden and Norway.

The British Foreign Office took a different approach, simply tweeting What the Presidential executive order on inbound migration to USA means to British nationals and dual nationals and a link to a press release, drawing the ire of thousands of demonstrators who took the Government’s silence on the matter as a sign of complicity as they protested at Downing Street following news of the ban.

Would you want to start having a Twitter conversation with Donald Trump if you’re Angela Merkel?

Very few leaders have responded to Trump directly. Even the tone of the messages of congratulations following his election have been ‘reserved’ rather than ‘joyous’, according to Lüfkens. For example, Danish Prime minister Lars Loekke Rasmussen tweeted Congratulations @realDonaldTrump. Remember our strong transatlantic ties and the importance of #TTIP. #USElection2016, whilst former Swedish prime minister Carl Bildt simply tweeted Fasten your seatbelts.

The Mexican President, Enrique Peña Nieto, responded to Trump’s repeated calls to build a wall along the Mexico-US border with a statement posted on Twitter in Spanish, saying that Mexico ‘will not pay for any wall’ despite the President’s assertion that it would. The former President of Mexico, Vicente Fox Quesada, went one step further, tweeting a mere five days after Trump’s inauguration, Sean Spicer [White House press secretary], I’ve said this to @realDonaldTrump and now I’ ll tell you: Mexico is not going to pay for that fucking wall. #FuckingWall.

It is, perhaps, telling that those who respond to him the most strongly are the leaders not wielding the most power. ‘Nobody wants to pick a Twitter fight with Donald Trump,’ says Lüfkens.

‘Would you want to start having a Twitter conversation with Donald Trump if you’re Angela Merkel?’ asks Melton. ‘Public communication of any leader must work with what kind of person they are.’

Many world leaders have not yet made the decision whether to even follow Donald Trump at his personal account @RealDonaldTrump. His personal account is yet another string to his bow since he, unlike President Obama, has not relinquished his personal account in favour of the official POTUS Twitter account.

He told The Times, ‘I’d rather just let that build up and just keep it @realDonaldTrump, it’s working – and the tweeting, I thought I’d do less of it, but I’m covered so dishonestly by the press – so dishonestly – that I can put out Twitter – and it’s not 140, it’s now 280 – I can go bing bing bing . . . and they put it on and as soon as I tweet it out – this morning on television, Fox – ‘Donald Trump, we have breaking news’.’

‘The strategy isn’t clear between the two accounts,’ says Lüfkens. ‘[@RealDonaldTrump] is an official channel; that is very clear. Obama was clear, [@BarackObama] was his campaign account, there was no administration tweeting on it. POTUS never tweeted from Obama and Obama never tweeted in support of the POTUS accounts.

‘It’s a challenge: do you even have to follow him?’ he continues. ‘Not everyone follows him. He doesn’t follow any foreign leader. He follows 40 people, the only foreigner he follows is Piers Morgan.’

President Trump is followed by 87 world leaders and ministers on his personal account, an unimpressive number according to Lüfkens. ‘It’s not very good. Barack Obama is followed by 290. The White House is followed by 262 heads of state or government. POTUS is followed by 188. Donald Trump is in 14th position.’

For politicians wondering how to deal with Trump’s social prowess, it appears answer is not to fight fire with fire. We’re unlikely to see other world leaders follow his example, according to McRandal. ‘I don’t think you’ll see Theresa May suddenly tweeting about TV ratings. For one thing, America is very different, it wouldn’t be popular here. But lessons will be learnt about how to effectively use Twitter and how to control the news cycle.’

I’m personally in favour of personal engagements from world leaders, they should be more open

Melton agrees. ‘Whilst we are likely to see others riding the wave of anti-establishment feeling, his tweets are unlikely to radically change the way the majority of politicians communicate on social media. It is likely, however, to have an effect on how they communicate in general. They will have to be able to respond immediately to any policy change or whim that Trump may tweet about. All of this makes planning and long-term strategizing more difficult.’

Lüfkens calls for more open communication between politicians and their audiences. ‘Communication needs to develop, tweets could be the way to go in long run,’ he surmises. ‘I’m personally in favour of personal engagements from world leaders, they should be more open. I don’t expect them to send every tweet out unchecked but they should at least be totally in sync with the person who writes them for them.’

He notes that Trump continues to use Twitter to campaign: his tweets are written entirely with his constituents in mind. Trump does not exist in isolation.

Other politicians have a similar unorthodox approach to social media. ‘There are other examples of populist politicians that are successfully adopting this approach,’ says Melton. ‘Ramzan Kadyrov, the pro- Russian President of Chechnya, is famed for his Instagram account, which has two million followers attracted by a heady mix of wealth, power, women, Siberian tigers, cars and oversized firearms. A 2016 New York Times profile described his Instagram as ‘bizarrely compelling’, despite his known personal involvement in several war crimes and frequent violent outbursts. Similar sentiments have been raised to describe Trump’s accounts.’

In any case, Trump’s tweeting does look likely to slow down anytime soon. ‘If he didn’t have social media, how would he communicate?’ asks Lüfkens. ‘In Twitter he has found his medium to make one-line statements. It’s soundbites: that’s what makes the way he tweets very powerful. It’s effective but unconventional. He has mastered the art of social media.’

Many will be hoping the art of diplomacy won’t be too far behind.


This article appeared in Issue 112