Hillary Clinton just took a curious detour in her presidential campaign. It’s a detour with no guardrails that leads straight to a precarious cliff into the abyss. That detour was Twitter—at least the brief war of words with the presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump.
It’s one war she can’t win. And as a communications strategy it’s a poor platform on which to pick a fight, especially when her opponent has skillfully used Twitter to slay his enemies, set his agenda, and dominate social media buzz and the news media.
When Hillary Clinton swept the final primaries on June 7th assuring herself of the democratic nomination and the endorsement of President Obama, Trump was ready with the following tweet.
The tweet was typical Trump: flamboyant and to the point. And it perhaps would have gone largely unnoticed on his feed if someone on the Clinton campaign had not decided to launch a three-word response.
The Clinton fusillade was the shot heard around the world. It was instantly liked and re-tweeted thousands of times. Of course, one of them was from Trump himself.
This too was re-tweeted and broadcast thousands of times with the stinging reminder of Clinton’s email server controversy while she served as Secretary of State, arguably one of her biggest liabilities.
But the Clinton campaign hit right back reminding women about Trump’s biggest liability—his treatment of women.
When the final analysis is written on the 2016 presidential election it’s likely that Twitter will command its own chapter, and Trump may very well write it. In many ways he already has. In his book “The Art of The Deal” Trump describes his communication and business style as instinctive and direct. And when it comes to confrontation, he pulls no punches.
“When people treat me badly or unfairly or try to take advantage of me, my general attitude, all my life, has been to fight back very hard,” wrote Trump.
Twitter was tailor made for Trump to be his boxing ring. It is the place that uniquely mirrors his personality and fixation for attention and confrontation. Communication researchers Elihu Katz and Michael Gurevitch long ago theorized that people choose, consume, and interact with media based upon their psychological needs. Their Uses and Gratifications Theory provides a structural framework for how people use media. In Trump’s case, Twitter’s ease of use, instant feedback, and forum for quick discussion feeds almost exactly into the Katz and Gurevitch heuristic of satisfying Trump’s need for cognitive stimulation and attention. Pure and simple—it’s entertainment. And with Twitter literally in the palm of his hand, Trump is both the entertainer and the entertained.
His use of the platform to strike against his opponents in consumable fragments for his followers and the media has only amplified his message and his persona. Opponents such as Marco Rubio who have tried to fight back by competing at his own level have miserably failed.
Clinton has wisely used Twitter up until now to enhance her policy positions and energize her base. But now she too is using it to go on the attack.
Using Trump’s own words against him is a smart strategy, especially for women. It gives them not just a reason to elaborate on Trump’s perceived negatives, but Clinton’s perceived positives.
However her campaign would be wise to avoid a back and forth Twitter war with Trump. It may want to consider the words of wisdom passed along to me by my first television news director Mark Zellich. “Timmer,” he said, “Never get into a pissing match with a skunk.”
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