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Trump social: the evolution of a powerful political technique

Opinion

Politicians once told Michelle Prak that social media was frivolous and just for teenagers. How wrong they were.

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Years ago, I worked as a social media consultant and much of my work involved government departments. Some of my work also involved politicians.

And let me tell you: a great many of them wanted to avoid social media.

They laughed at any notion of using social media platforms to communicate with the public and constituents.

They were largely focused on the perceived risk. Government and politicians – at all tiers of Australian politics – were also of the opinion that Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Reddit and the like were:

• Frivolous
• A waste of time
• For teenagers only
• A passing fad

It’s amusing to think of that viewpoint, now.

Today – across the globe – government agencies are throwing resources at social media channels which help them undertake an enormous amount of their essential work. Social media is recognised as a powerful communications tool (particularly in emergencies) and research aid. And leaders from Prime Ministers to Presidents wouldn’t dream of closing their Twitter or Facebook accounts.

Which brings us to Trump.

The new US President has been criticised for his prolific use of Twitter, both across social media and in published pieces in mainstream press.

Why on earth did we expect anything different?

Trump has shown – over his election campaign, his inauguration and now weeks into his presidency – that he and his team have no compunction about communicating differently. He can and will use Twitter in whatever way he likes. And people can grumble about it; he won’t care.

Can you imagine President Barack Obama tweeting something like this:

The week before the 2017 inauguration, I watched a snippet of an American television panel show – and I remember panel members saying that once Trump assumed office, the enormity of his role would change him. He’d swiftly mature and leave behind the outrageous communication methods that had helped him win the election. I was amazed at the assumption. Trump had already defeated all expectations – why were people waiting for him to suddenly embrace tradition and old norms?

I’ve recently been listening to Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History. In one podcast, The Big Man Can’t Shoot, Gladwell looks at our proclivity to stick with social norms, no matter the cost – even if it’s to our detriment – because of a fear of what others will say and because it’s ‘the way things are always done’. It’s worth a listen.

So, is it the case that the Trump camp isn’t afraid to ignore social norms – including the norms and traditions of decades of “Presidential behaviour”? If acting outrageously, slinging untruths and stereotypes and hyperbole around the place is working for the Trump camp, why would they change? What’s in it for them? If using Twitter to lash out, share exasperation and pout is both a catharsis and an effective PR exercise, why would Trump stop? It seems team Trump regard themselves as The Winners, and any naysayers are The Losers.

Many people expected (hoped) that Trump would become more diplomatic and circumspect on his Twitter account; that, as is traditional, his tweets would reflect the maturity and tact we have usually seen in most facets of presidential communication – even outside of social media. But like a teenager who has discovered her parents can’t really make her doing anything she doesn’t want to do, Trump has forged on with his own tweeting style and has found that – aside from the outrage of people he wouldn’t win over anyway – he’s getting away with it.

The big question is, of course, what happens next.

For a tradition to change, we usually require a changemaker, trendsetter or vanguard, if you will, who is happy to cause some chaos and by doing so, may gradually make it acceptable to do things differently.

Trump is the culmination of politicians’ evolving use of social media. They’ve embraced the communities and channels they once shunned. That Trump is going one step further and openly using Twitter to showcase his personality, display his immaturity and, in essence, wear his heart on his sleeve, shouldn’t be a surprise to any of us.

And just for fun: while I was musing over politicians’ use of Twitter, I looked up the very first tweets of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, and SA Premier Jay Weatherill:

Screen Shot 2017-02-24 at 10.14.29 am

Screen Shot 2017-02-24 at 10.14.46 am

And here’s Trump’s first tweet:

Screen Shot 2017-02-24 at 10.16.48 am

Michelle Prak is an Adelaide public relations consultant. She is president of the SA Council of the Public Relations Institute of Australia.

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