By Mark W. Schaefer
I was interviewed this week about my views on how the new U.S. President has used and abused Twitter. I was asked if Donald Trump has changed Twitter, perhaps even pumped the channel with new life and vitality. And even more important, how has he changed the dynamics of PR … any company or public figure could become a tweet target!
Twitter is consistently underestimated by the press. It’s had some bad PR because it’s not meeting Wall Streets expectations for profitability and user growth, but that doesn’t mean it’s not an important and powerful network. They still have 330 million active users and for many, Twitter is part of the fabric of their lives.
Has Donald Trump changed Twitter? Yes and no.
First, the “no” part.
Twitter is the ultimate viral channel
It always amazes me when I see a news story that begins like this: “Today Ukranian leaders announced on Twitter that Russian tanks have been placed along its borders.” Why would a national leader announce anything on Twitter? Simple. They know there’s no better platform on earth to send news on a viral path.
For years, national and local leaders have used Twitter to connect directly with their constituents. Paul Kagame, the president of Rwanda, may have been the first national leader to tweet freely, as far back as 2010.
Twitter has been used effectively at every level of government to create transparency and take a message directly to the people.
So Donald Trump has hardly been the first leader in history to broadcast his views and opinions on the world’s viral machine. However, his use of the platform may be … unique.
Twitter as a weapon
The beauty of Twitter is that it is the most human-powered social media platform. All the best stuff on Twitter has been invented by its users, not by the company. Hashtags. Twitter Chats. Twitter games.
But the thing that’s different now is that Donald Trump has invented a new role for Twitter, a use that might be forever unique to him. He is using Twitter as a weapon of mass destruction.
People have always argued on this platform. “Twitter wars” usually involve short, angry outbursts and sometimes they’re even fun to watch.
But the most powerful person on earth has never used social media quite this way before. While president, Barack Obama tweeted 352 times. You’d be hard-pressed to think of a single tweet of Obama’s that was really memorable, let alone newsworthy.
Trump’s tweets have become a source of dread and fear. There’s a growing business right now in getting companies ready for a presidential tweet. If you’re the target of a Trump tweet, your response may define you for years. It’s an unprecedented situation and in this way, I do think Donald Trump has changed Twitter.
He has 20 million followers. He’s the president. The world is watching. You can’t ignore that.
What to do if the president tweets you
Every good PR plan should focus on single-point accountability and speed in a crisis, and the same is true if the president should tweet at you. There should be preparation, a social media policy in place, and a clear line of accountability, involving legal and your PR agency if necessary. The ultimate spokesperson should be a senior company representative, not an agency.
If a company does react to a tweet from a high-profile person, it should do it carefully. Here’s a case study: A CNBC report noted Skittles’ response to a tweet from Donald Trump Jr., when he likened the candy to refugees, in September 2016.
Parent company Wrigley’s response was: “Skittles are candy. Refugees are people. We don’t feel it’s an appropriate analogy. We will respectfully refrain from further commentary as anything we say could be misinterpreted as marketing.”
This is a perfect response. If the tweet represents misinformation, the strategy is clear-cut. State your case and end the discussion.
But if the subject matter is a gray area, the response has high stakes. When President Trump threatened Toyota with a border tax if it moved jobs to Mexico, its share price tanked. When he tweeted about Lockheed Martin, the company lost $4 billion in market value in a matter of hours.
The risk is so great, a new app called Trump Triggers alerts investors of potentially damaging tweets.
A fundamental piece of the response strategy is to have a social media strategy and an established Twitter presence in place before something happens. If your response begins with figuring out who is managing your Twitter account (or worse, opening an account!) you’re already too late. You’re not going to get any warning about this. The only plan is to be prepared.
A response to a presidential tweet is a big deal. It is a story that could define your brand image for years. So resist a reflexive response, have a plan ready, have the team in place, and get it right. No response is better than a bad response.
A response should be:
- Respectful of the president
- Focused on facts, citing sources
- Authentic, coming from a company leader
- Succinct and final. Don’t keep the conversation going
Keep in mind that a presidential tweet and a response may elicit thousands of responses from supporters and detractors. It’s usually best to let this tide of tweets quickly calm down on its own. It may also attract unprecedented press coverage. Get professional PR support immediately if you don’t have a full-time person on your team.
Even a positive tweet from the commander-in-chief can have a negative impact if it politicizes a brand. In this case it might be best to let the issue blow over. Most of the time the impact of a positive tweet is short-lived.
In any event, we’re in for an interesting four years, especially if you work in corporate public relations.
Mark Schaefer is the chief blogger for this site, executive director of Schaefer Marketing Solutions, and the author of several best-selling digital marketing books. He is an acclaimed keynote speaker, college educator, and business consultant. The Marketing Companion podcast is among the top business podcasts in the world. Contact Mark to have him speak to your company event or conference soon.