Tessa Curtis

Can companies use Twitter like Trump?

US elections throw into stark relief changes in the media landscape. Of near universal interest, the election of a new American President shines light on otherwise incremental behaviour change. With Obama, the surprise was the power of social media to mobilise grass roots support. This seems like a lifetime ago as Trump opens a new chapter with Twitter.
Through a succession of pithy (and not-so-pithy) tweets – on topics from Taiwan and China to Nigel Farage for UK ambassador – he is re-setting the dial in global news media. Sage news editors are learning to hold a prominent slot for “Trump’s latest Twitter upset”.

In using Twitter to float or announce major policy and diplomatic intentions, Trump is breaking new territory. He is largely bypassing the established processes of making news. Much has been written about “post-truth” and Trump’s rise on the back of fake news, but side-stepping the conventional news machine could prove even more significant.

All politicians, governments and organisations aspire to set the news agenda. This has long been a common game, played more or less successfully, on the basis of an unwritten but well entrenched way of working. Restricted access, selective statements and briefings, and powerful gatekeepers are key features – creating hierarchies among journalists and outlets
When Trump reveals, for example, details of his call with Taiwan on Twitter he leapfrogs almost all of this process. From tweet to headline. Instead of social media picking up on political news in mainstream media, Twitter leads and others follow. Whether or not the tweet is actually composed by Donald Trump, it has the appearance of his direct utterance. Real or fake, the boundaries are blurred, but undeniably top titles follow Twitter.

This direct challenge to the news establishment is consistent with Trump’s wider pitch and role as demagogue-in-chief. Whether it marks the beginning of bigger shift remains to be seen. It’s hard to imagine a sudden end to the established way of releasing news and engaging with media, though other populist leaders will doubtless emulate Trump.

Companies and other organisations will also be interested. The question for corporate communicators is whether they, like Trump, can set the news agenda as successfully by leapfrogging the established news machine. Can we all best make headlines via Twitter?

This is tempting but I fear the answer is no. It’s dangerous to confuse the immediacy of social media with the newsworthiness of content. In short, the President-elect is inherently newsworthy because he will soon be the most powerful man on the planet, so in theory we should all care what he thinks and does. Most organisations, however, fail this basic test. Unless they have really screwed up (a crisis scenario) what they say or do may not interest many people– indeed PR is often used to help them engage more effectively with the outside world.

Years ago I had lunch with another former correspondent from the BBC Newsroom who had moved into PR. Whilst I was a consultant to corporate clients, he was part of Tony Blair’s communications team in Downing Street. We compared notes. He told me his primary task was to manage news flow – keeping a lid on certain stories so they surfaced in the best way. My challenge however was all too often to help find a decent story from limited material.

And therein lies the answer. Content, not channels will always drive news.