Is Donald Trump a fool or a genius?

Scott Macleod | Account Manager Donald Trump

Donald Trump speaking at the 2015 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland. photo: Gage Skidmore

Many of us are outraged at the man’s social media statements, which can be arrogant, aggressive, pompous and erratic. But he’s president of the United States for a reason. It’s no secret that Trump has embraced social media platforms as part of his communications strategy, but many people in the public relations sphere are still trying to figure out why it has gotten him where he is today. After all, Trump has regularly made statements that would normally spell political death for a leader, but which seem to resonate with his supporters. 

The president has accounts with Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat, but it is his use of Twitter that has attracted the most attention. Trump is prolific in that medium – he tweeted 260 times from his @RealDonaldTrump account during the first 50 days of his presidency. This might suggest that the act of tweeting is in itself a way of increasing profile, but there is a caveat in terms of branding because the presidents’ more negative and critical tweets are associated with a drop in approval rating.

It seems, therefore, that there is still a need for careful crafting of tweets to ensure a brand is strengthened beyond mere increase in profile. According to an analysis by NBC News, Trump starts tweeting at 8.22am on average every day. These early tweets are often linked with a specific news report and are sent from an Android phone that is associated with his most “raw” comments. From early afternoon, subdued tweets are often made from an iPhone that is reportedly controlled by staff.

Trump returns to his Android phone in the evenings for a continuation of the “raw” posts. The four most common phrases used by Trump are “news media”, “fake news”, “our country” and “failing NY Times”. These attacks on the media offer a semi-effective foil against negative mainstream publicity, providing his supporters with alternative narratives that deflect criticism and delegitimise journalistsPsychologists say that repetitive and provocative messages such as Trump’s gain power through an effect called salience, in which something that stands out from its “background” becomes more noticeable.

This is demonstrated by the fact that many of Trump’s supporters believe just about everything he says, even when he’s wrong. His tweet statements are regularly criticised in mainstream news stories, but a significant proportion of people no longer read such reports – their news comes from Facebook. Twitter has one other feature that practically forces Trump to communicate effectively – its posting limit of 140 characters. Public relations professionals train politicians to restrict themselves to a handful of key messages that can be expressed through “soundbites” as short as seven seconds. Twitter’s character limit forces Trump to communicate in a similarly punchy way.

Many people do see Trump as more fool than genius, suggesting that his social media successes stem from accident rather than design.

Either way, he’s re-writing the social media handbook.