WEST PALM BEACH, Florda — Former President Donald Trump may insist press releases are “more elegant” than his old Twitter missives, but public relations specialists, advertising executives and political strategists say they are no substitute for social media platforms.
But while all agree that Trump’s banishment from social media has hurt his ability to get his message out faster and more directly, at least one expert believes his message, either by press release or favorable media outlet, still reaches his target audience.
Since leaving the presidency in January, Trump has resorted to old-school press releases, now numbering in the dozens, as his go-to form of messaging.
The content of those communications has varied. Some have signaled endorsements of candidates. Others have ripped fellow Republicans for being critical of him. Others have taken aim at policies, such as immigration, promulgated by his successor, President Joe Biden.
The tone in those statements has also fluctuated. Some have been straightforward, while others have read like his old tweets.
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Speaking to Newsmax on March 22, Trump said the press releases are more effective than his tweets because people are waiting for them, Twitter can get you in “trouble” and the press releases are “really much more elegant,” he said.
Communications professionals disagree.
“That’s not as good as direct real-time message,” said Carey O’Donnell, who owns the O’Donnell Agency in West Palm Beach. “Not by a long shot is it as good as real-time, true Trump messaging.”
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O’Donnell, a longtime public relations professional, said relying on press releases yields too much, well, power.
One challenge is regularity, she said.
“He has a major challenge with respect to his direct access to his base,” O’Donnell said. “They expect frequency because that is the benchmark he established.”
In fact, Trump issued more than 25,000 tweets and retweets, on average 17 per day, during his four years in office. Since leaving the White House, he has averaged just under one press release a day, although he has also done some interviews on broadcast media.
Social media allowed people, like Trump, to cut out the middle man
An even bigger challenge, O’Donnell said, is that social media has “flattened the traditional media hierarchy.”
It has made it possible for a newsmaker, like Trump, to speak directly to his or her audience, she said. By contrast, old-style press releases are dropped into the hands of communications middlemen of sorts, like the news media.
“You have to go through the filter of a reporter,” she said, who is unlikely to report what is on your press release verbatim, or will “frame a context around it that is not of your choosing” with quotes and perspectives from others, including your rivals.
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“Social media gives you the direct access on your timeline and your audience can consume the message on their timeline,” O’Donnell added. “It’s not like they have to be tuned into the 6:30 nightly news. They can access it when their day allows.”
For a politician like Trump, O’Donnell said, their power in part lies in the size of their audience and lacking the ability to instantly and directly communicate with them is a monumental challenge.
“Social media has completely and forever changed the game. It’s by far the most effective way to lead a large group of any type,” she said. “It is a problem for him. It is a major problem for him.”
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Miami-based GOP strategist and podcast host Gianno Caldwell agreed that Trump’s banishment from social media has hamstrung his ability to communicate with his base.
“He’s getting his message out, but it’s very limited,” said Caldwell of iHeartRadio’s “Outloud with Gianno Caldwell.” “He’s disadvantaged by virtue of not having that megaphone. He really is. Maybe some of the things he says will get out there but not absolutely everything.”
What’s worse, he said, is that Trump now has to rely on his critics in the mainstream media to disseminate his views for him.
“It’s kind of tough to be in that situation where you have to rely on institutions that may not like you,” he said. “And we know that is largely the case because he attacked the press and they attacked back by covering him in a very, very negative way.”
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Caldwell recalls that Trump, as president, registered 80 million followers on Twitter and “everybody was tuned in to that major megaphone that was much more of a direct conduit to the people than any [network] could ever be.”
An example was a press release issued by Trump on March 4, through the Save America PAC, blasting Republican strategist and Fox News commentator Karl Rove. Caldwell said he had not even heard of Trump’s attack on Rove until a reporter mentioned it to him.
“I can guarantee you if he tweeted about it I would have heard about it,” Caldwell said. “So that just tells you how his influence, at least in media, is waning in terms of him getting his message out.”
And the fallout has been felt even by communicators like Caldwell. He said he saw his Twitter audience drop by about 25,000 after Trump was banned.
And Trump’s banishment, Caldwell added, also paved the way for Big Tech companies to kick other conservatives off their platforms, which Caldwell said could have a chilling effect on political discourse.
“They really are taking people out,” he said.
An alternative may be to let others handle his social media messaging
Trump aides said this month that the former president is likely to start his own social media platform in the next few months. That is one option for the former president to regain his digital audience, but there are others.
Public relations professional Monica Lewman-Garcia said that Trump knows well how important social media is.
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“Trump will do what Trump does,” said Lewman Garcia, who serves as vice president for communication for the Palm Beach County chapter of the Public Relations Society of America. “But he certainly understands the power of social media.”
And for someone like Trump, who has the means and the network, getting around the Twitter ban may not be impossible.
Lewman-Garcia said there are many individuals in business who don’t want to engage on these platforms, for numerous reasons, and they get around that reticence by hiring PR and advertising firms that specialize in this form of communications.
“A lot of the people that I work with are primarily focused on reaching out to clients,” she said. “I would guess that a significant portion of high-profile individuals who are on social media have teams that are managing this.”
She said there are many agencies that set up social media profiles for individuals and businesses, get them up and running by doing the “heavy lifting,” and later continue to maintain them or advise them on how to improve them going forward.
One of those is Alchemy Communications Group in Jupiter, which advises and manages social media accounts for a variety of businesses and brands.
How letting a company do your social messaging works
Kelly Mayfair Owens, partner and editorial director, said her clients fall into multiple camps. Some were individuals and businesses that had no prior interest in social media, others are too busy to spend time thumbing tweets and postings and others just felt starting a social media effort from scratch was too uphill a climb.
“That is not an easy thing to do with social media relative to a business,” she said.
So Alchemy assists clients across the board on their social media needs, everything from setting up accounts and web pages to individual postings.
“Our job is to get to know the brand and get to know the person and then we move forward,” said Mayfair Owens. “Once you get to know it, you kind of know what is going to work and what isn’t.”
An example is a client who heads a 32-year-old company that is in the high-end decorative hardware and plumbing industry, she said. It turns out that part of the company’s appeal on social media is that the business is led by a woman, a rarity in that industry.
“They are very, very active on social media,” she said. “Those people who sign on to follow that company on social media in some way are inextricable from who she is.”
Still, Mayfair Owens concedes it is an unusual business relationship in which you get to know a client and their business so well you can represent them to the point of taking on their identity.
“It can be an oddly circular set of circumstances when you are working with this,” she said. “But that is generally how we are able to consistently and constantly post for these clients having gotten to know what is good and what is bad.”
One expert says Trump’s base still gets his message, eventually
But a Democratic communications strategist says he believes the impact of Trump’s Twitter ban is often overstated.
Spencer Critchley, who helped handle press and media for former President Barack Obama, said Trump can still count on a labyrinth of broadcast media, like the One America News Network and the Newsmax channel, and websites like Breitbart News, to send out his message.
And then once those media channels report on what Trump says, his base then picks it up and disseminates those stories on their own Facebook, Twitter and social media pages.
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“Anything he says still ends up all over Fox News and OAN and Newsmax and Breitbart, all of them, and blasted through everybody’s personal Facebook sharing universe,” Critchley said.
Another factor pundits and others overlook is that Trump’s base still believes everything the former president says, such as the baseless allegation that the 2020 presidential election was stolen, and that blunts the impact of having his Twitter account removed.
“So, yes, there is a dramatic difference simply in him being off Twitter because he was able to generate news cycles almost hourly just by saying something outrageous,” Critchley said. “But Trump’s audience still exists in a separate reality and anything he says is getting broadcast, it’s still blanketing, it’s still wrapping around his target audience, which maybe is still nearly half the country.”
In fact, Critchley said the removal of Trump’s account plays to his “victimization” and “Fisher King” aura. There is a certain aspect of political mysticism with Trump’s populism in that he embodies “their hopes and dreams” and still remains a decidedly “symbolic figure,” he said.
Critchley compared it to music fans’ pilgrimages to Elvis Presley’s Graceland, or even Democrats who visit John F. Kennedy’s gravesite out of a sense of longing for a return to the days of Camelot.
Trump now is simply a far-right example of an American trait that has long existed.
“He is extremely powerful that way because he has tapped into that. That’s why I think he is still so powerful,” Critchley said. “Yeah, there’s the whole media universe that supports him. But the energy that is driving it is a desire to get everything you want. That’s the new American creed.”