NEW YORK – Donald Trump won the U.S. presidential election on Twitter. There, he created what the head of a major market-research company called “a continuous Trump rally that happens on Twitter at all hours.” He attracted millions more followers than Hillary Clinton, garnered three times more free exposure than Clinton on social media and, according to the social media firm SocialFlow, made himself “the most talked-about person on the planet.”
Trump’s ability to outsmart other politicians on social media also stands to be one of his most formidable weapons as president. However, to be successful in his new job, America’s tweeter-in-chief will need to use social media differently than he did during the campaign.
The late political scientist Richard Neustadt famously argued that “presidential power is the power to persuade.” The best way for Trump to convince officials to do what he wants will be to persuade them that doing so is in their interests. The same will largely be true for his interactions with foreign leaders.
Twitter stands to be a powerful tool of persuasion. But only if he uses it effectively. Once he becomes president, tweeting less will actually make Trump more influential — for several reasons.
First, one of Trump’s promises on the campaign trail was that he would use his business skills to negotiate better deals for the U.S. But he won’t be able to do so if he keeps live-tweeting his thoughts. According to Harvard Law School’s Program on Negotiation, sharing one’s thinking early during a negotiation — which they call making “information concessions” — risks giving the other side intelligence it can exploit. For example, if Trump appears too eager to strike a deal, a company or country can force him to overpay for it.
Also, publicly stating his demands at the outset will make it harder for Trump to accept fair compromises later. That’s the same point James Madison was making when he reported that the Founding Fathers wouldn’t have been able to agree on the U.S. Constitution if they had publicly discussed what happened at the convention.
The time for Trump to take to Twitter is immediately after he has successfully negotiated a deal, so that he can claim victory and frame the outcome on his own terms.
Second, tweeting less will give each of Trump’s tweets greater authority. A 2016 study by the global public relations firm Burson-Marsteller of the Twitter handles of all 172 heads of state who use the platform found that @POTUS is “by far the most effective” handle, with each tweet garnering an average of 12,350 retweets and 19,600 likes. “What is it that make the presidential tweets so popular?” the report asked. “The @POTUS Twitter account is putting quality over quantity.” The second-most retweeted head of state, Saudi Arabia’s @KingSalman, also tweets only sporadically.
Retweets and likes are important for Trump because they may be a way to influence people with opposing views. One study found that social-media users will read content by partisan sources with which they disagree if they see that it is recommended by a lot of other people. If Trump tweets less, the world will take notice when he does.
Third, tweeting less will make Trump more popular. Neustadt explained that high public-approval ratings help presidents achieve their goals in office. This is because members of Congress and others take account of the support the president enjoys when calculating the consequences of disagreeing with him.
But most Americans think Trump tweets too much. According to a Morning Consult/Politico poll, 56 percent of the country thinks he should tweet less. A late-November poll showed that 59 percent of Americans think he should quit Twitter altogether.
According to Politico, Republican lawmakers are struggling with unwelcome questions about Trump’s inflammatory tweets, such as his recent false claim of massive voter fraud. This isn’t a way to win hearts and minds.
And while Trump’s proclivity to pick fights on Twitter may fuel his base, it is rightly perceived by many Americans to be petty and unpresidential. For example, after Trump attacked an 18-year-old college student in a tweet for saying she didn’t think he is a “friend to women,” she was flooded with sexual threats. And after Trump tweeted on Wednesday that Indianapolis union leader Chuck Jones is bad at his job, Jones reported that he was barraged by threatening phone calls, including a warning to keep his eye on his kids.
Finally, holding his tweets will give Trump time to get input from his staff — and to cool his jets. Trump’s propensity to fire off tweets on his own is highly unusual. Burson-Marsteller’s 2015 “Twiplomacy” study found that heads of state mostly entrust tweeting to staff members. And for good reason. Aides can study issues, fact check and consider potential ramifications before a post goes live — such as, you know, whether their country has diplomatic relations with the nation they’re tweeting about.
In the past, Trump has often deleted tweets he later came to regret — for example, a tweet offering “best wishes” to “the haters and losers” on the anniversary of the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, another tweet falsely claiming that President Barack Obama lost the popular vote in 2012 (as Trump actually did in 2016) and therefore calling for a revolution against Obama, and a tweet calling Clinton corrupt with a Star of David that was perceived as anti-Semitic. Under criticism, Trump has also often followed up incendiary tweets with more tweets to clarify or contradict his previous ones.
However, under the Presidential Records Act, the White House Office of Records Management keeps all @POTUS tweets, so deletions aren’t a viable strategy.
Among Trump’s recent superfluous tweets was a tweet about a Saturday Night Live skit about his excessive tweets. The comedy show’s suggestion that Trump ease up on Twitter is some of the smartest advice he could take.
Kara Alaimo is an assistant professor of public relations at Hofstra University and author of “Pitch, Tweet, or Engage on the Street: How to Practice Global Public Relations and Strategic Communication.” She served in the Obama administration.
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