The pen is mightier than the sword, at least according to Cardinal Richelieu. In the historical play by Edward Bulwer-Lytton—who is ironically also known for penning a novel using the weak opening words “It was a dark and stormy night”—Richelieu, as the chief minister to King Louis XIII, famously notes that traditional weapons are not required to fight enemies of the royal court. “Take away the sword; States can be saved without it,” he says.
When conducting state affairs today, of course, the might of the pen appears to pale in comparison to the power of the tweet, especially ones issued by U.S. President-elect Donald Trump. Indeed, ever since the billionaire bully’s surprise election victory, few things have subjected other business leaders and politicians to dark and stormy nights like Trump’s infamous Twitter feed.
As the world anxiously awaited the inauguration of the next President of the United States this year, the @realDonaldTrump Twitter account was aggressively used to pursue a variety of agendas, ranging from bashing mainstream media outlets and ridiculing critics like Meryl Streep to dismissing intelligence concerns over Russian involvement in U.S. politics and threatening to impose import taxes on manufacturers that have the audacity to have international operations.
Since Trump’s micro-blogging account was created in 2009, it has issued more than 30,000 tweets, many of which have been far from presidential, or at least far from what was once considered presidential, and not just because they often shoot from the hip in a crude and insulting manner. In addition to being boorish, Trump’s Twitter feed frequently states self-serving falsehoods that any novice fact-checker with a web browser could easily spot, which is why some Twitter employees reportedly support calls to pull the plug on @realDonaldTrump for breaking code-of-conduct rules.
Nevertheless, the Trump camp insists these unpresidential rants will not stop on U.S. Inauguration Day because Twitter is the new administration’s weapon of choice to directly reach the American people without being unfairly filtered by “fake-news” media. “Absolutely, you’re going to see Twitter [used by a sitting president],” incoming White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer insisted early this year, noting Trump’s ability to use social media to directly communicate with millions of Americans “freaks the mainstream media out.”
If truth be told, Trump’s tweets freak out more than just members of the traditional press. According to media reports, managers and directors in boardrooms across North America now live in constant fear of being targeted by @realDonaldTrump, which has been credited with singlehandedly moving public opinion and financial markets alike.
When it comes to using Twitter to keep informed about national or global affairs, the most powerful political leader on the planet isn’t considered anything special. After all, Trump’s Twitter account follows just 42 other feeds, mostly attached to Trump family members or related organizations, none of which are expected to challenge the man’s pre-existing assumptions (for independent thought, Trump relies on tweets from a handful of outsiders such as Geraldo Rivera). But when it comes to using social media to directly influence America’s voting masses, Trump is widely considered a force to be feared because his Twitter followers total more than 20 million.
How much fear is out there? Believe it or not, currency traders in Mexico are so concerned over the billions in Mexican reserves that have been spent defending the peso from Trump’s tweet-based threats to block Mexican-made vehicles from the U.S. market that they are rumoured to be lobbying local monetary authorities to take extraordinary actions. As Bloomberg reported: “There’s a strange idea circulating among Mexican currency traders. Well, more of a joke really. But there’s a certain logic to it. Instead of spending its precious reserves to defend the peso, Mexico should just buy Twitter Inc.—at a cost of about $12 billion—and immediately shut it down.”
Meanwhile, corporate crisis managers across North America are being warned to be prepared to appease the Twitter beast if targeted by a Trump tweet, even if that means passively promoting falsehoods that give the impression executives and directors are ignoring their fiduciary duties, which require them to act in the best interests of long-term shareholders.
But here is the rub: Despite what you read, the corporate world really has nothing to directly fear from Trump’s tweets but fear itself. After all, the man isn’t really a social media guru. And his Twitter account doesn’t really have the massive influence that the corporate world has been led to believe, at least not on its own. When it comes to the threat posed by Trump’s tweets, the real problem is how they are being reported, not to mention how businesses are being told to react.
THE TWITTER KING: REALITY OR JUST GOOD STORY?
Back in 1990, thanks to a technical glitch during a supposedly live performance of Milli Vanilli’s “Girl You Know It’s True,” fans of the R&B duo discovered that their love for the German group was based upon a manufactured lie. The truth in this case was that two male models had been hired to front vocals for professional singers deemed less marketable. As a result, music buyers and concertgoers sued for refunds while Milli Vanilli lost a Grammy along with its future.
Public attitudes toward misleading performances are now much more accommodating. Lip-syncing isn’t even called lip-syncing anymore. “Lip-syncing is when people don’t sing at all,” Mariah Carey manager Stella Bulochnikov insisted after the artist’s embarrassing failure to mouth words in time with recorded vocals on Dick Clark’s “New Year’s Rockin’ Eve.” “Every artist sings to a track, especially in circumstances like that when it’s really loud and impossible to have a great musical performance.”
Whether this is true or not, nobody expects Carey to lose her career over lip-syncing. As Globe and Mail culture columnist Russell Smith recently noted, public “taste in art and in spectacle now accepts and even revels in a certain kind of falsehood.” And unfortunately, the same can be said about journalism, especially stories involving Twitter.
Following the death of “Star Wars” legend Carrie Fisher, news organizations around the world published stories on the reaction of her famous friends and family members, ranging from Fisher’s Star Wars co-stars Harrison Ford and Mark Hamill to her mother, Debbie Reynolds, who tragically died shortly after her daughter’s death. Some of these reports, including ones issued by reputable media organizations, included the following tweet from Gary Fisher: “Saddest tweets to tweet. Mommy is gone. I love you @carrieffisher.” This would be acceptable and maybe even newsworthy if the Gary in question was Fisher’s son. But the Gary in this case is a French Bulldog, who reportedly used Twitter to say goodbye to his mom.
Now, there is some debate about whether dogs feel grief when an owner dies because they are mentally equivalent to human toddlers. But canines clearly bond with humans, so following Fisher’s death, the media could have fairly painted a Hollywood version of Sir Edwin Landseer’s “The Old Shepherd’s Chief Mourner,” an oil-based work of art that depicts a mournful-looking dog resting his head on the coffin of his lost master. But for some reason that wasn’t a good enough story, so supposedly serious news outlets reported that Fisher’s pet dog used his paws to hammer out a “poignant” farewell tweet and credited him as a “social media sensation.”
For the record, all tweets from pets are written by people pretending to be pets. But ignoring this fact while reporting news is now apparently as acceptable as lip-syncing. What’s my point? Simply put, when you combine the growing public tolerance for misleading spectacle with the media’s love of all things Twitter, the end result is highly hyped coverage of tweets issued in the name of Donald Trump, who probably knows how to use Twitter about as much as Fisher’s dog.
Keep in mind that Trump is replacing Barack Obama, the first U.S. president to use a smartphone. As a result, he is moving into an upgraded White House that offers state-of-the-art communications technology. But as the oldest elected president in U.S. history, Trump will reportedly generate courier jobs by running a paper-based Oval Office. His people want you to believe this will improve security. But there is more to it than that.
Like a lot of 70-year-olds, Trump sees technology as too complicated to be trusted, which is why he mocks other decision makers for relying on data and technology. According to The Associated Press, he doesn’t like e-mail or surfing the Internet and rarely uses a computer. So instead of getting news and briefings in real time via digital delivery like Obama, the new president of the most powerful nation on the planet reportedly plans to keep informed by reading paper stacks of yesterday’s news.
How does this mesh with Trump’s reputation as a master crafter of legendary tweetstorms? Simply put, it doesn’t. Then again, as AP notes, he doesn’t tweet as much as we think. Trump typically just utters “messages out loud and leaves the actual typing to aides.” In other words, the so-called King of Twitter is a lip-tweeter who relies on others to voraciously manufacture his social media rants, often in multiple bursts because the people doing the actual tweeting are not always creative enough to issue threats and insults in under 140 characters.
NOTHING TO FEAR BUT FEAR ITSELF
Even lip-tweeters can become a social media force worthy of fear. But the direct influence of Trump’s Twitter account is clearly exaggerated. Keep in mind that the man is famous as a politician, businessman and celebrity, and yet his tweets don’t even come close to having the direct reach that the Twitter feeds of Katy Perry (95 million followers) and Justin Bieber (91 million followers) can boast about. Even as a lame-duck U.S. President, Barack Obama has a Twitter base that is 400 per cent larger than Trump’s following – which is not just comprised of U.S. citizens who love and support the man. Some Trump followers are foreigners. Some are Americans who hate the guy. And some are not even people.
As pop culture columnist Rob Salkowitz writes in Forbes, it is important to remember that any large Twitter account “accumulates a fair amount of detritus in the form of bots, spam accounts and other zombie followers who don’t represent engaged users.” After conducting an analysis of Trump’s online following, Salkowitz says Trump’s tweets probably reach about three million Americans, and that’s still a mix of friends, foes and train-wreck observers.
Why does this matter? Well, for one thing, it means Trump doesn’t really reach the masses by using tweets to bypass the mainstream media. Instead, he uses Twitter to get the mainstream media to report his messages to the general public, which is being left with the impression that millions of people consider Trump’s tweets worthy of attention. And as Salkowitz notes: “The more contentious things become in Washington, the more likely we are to hear Trump’s prodigious Twitter following being used as a cudgel against his less follower-endowed opponents, and as an indicator of his broad popularity.”
Simply put, nobody knows what percentage of the U.S. Twitterverse shares the president-elect’s worldview, but we do know that Trump lost the popular vote in America, where the average Twitter user is probably younger than the average Trump supporter. So instead of assessing Trump’s social media influence by looking at the number of Twitter followers that the Trump camp boasts about, a better figure to watch is probably the total number of “likes” generated by his individual tweets. And the average number of likes tied to Trump’s first 50 lip-tweets of 2017 was well under 100,000, which is a far cry from 20 million.
Don’t get me wrong. There is no question that Trump’s stated determination to force automakers with international operations and global supply chains to build more products in the United States—even if that means increasing costs for U.S. consumers and industry alike—represents a real and present danger to North American prosperity. But when it comes to Trump’s tweets, the business world’s reaction is more dangerous than Trump’s social media reach.
During the presidential campaign, Trump used Twitter to attack Ford, falsely claiming the company was planning to fire all U.S.-based employees after the company announced plans to build a car plant in Mexico. At the time, Ford CEO Mark Fields quickly moved to set the record straight, noting in a CNN interview that Ford was also investing heavily in U.S.-based operations: “It’s really unfortunate when politics get in the way of the facts.”
Since Trump won the election, however, quickly setting the record straight in a loud and clear fashion has apparently become the wrong thing to do.
According to a report in The Globe and Mail, corporate crisis managers across North America are frantically redrafting their PR playbooks to deal with Trump’s “adept” use of social media. Noting that a single angry tweet from Trump can quickly cost a company billions of dollars in stock market value, the newspaper reported that PR experts now believe that companies targeted by a tweet issued by Trump often have “only one realistic path—to bow down and give him the win he craves, even if it is not quite the truth.” In other words, if Trump claims automakers are changing investment plans because of his Twitter threats, executives are supposed to let him mislead the market.
The presented logic for this argument is simple. Trump gets angry and lashes out when confronted, so nobody should volunteer to take him on. In other words, the smart game is to “genuflect” and let Trump play “hero.” But that’s clearly open to debate. After all, plenty of experienced crisis managers and business experts still stand by the original playbook that calls for standing proud and setting the record straight.
According to Ivey Business School Professor Michael Sider, the globalized nature of the world economy will probably make it difficult for Trump to change things on the international trade front radically. But CEOs in sectors that might be hard hit by a Trump tariff (oil and gas, manufacturing, clothing) still need to be prepared to make a fair and polite defence of free trade. “Trump has a history of fighting back against such public statements, as he did with Boeing,” Sider says. “However, companies shouldn’t let Trump bully them. Instead, they should keep on making the necessary arguments despite the bullying.” That said, the Ivey professor recommends not trying to do this 140 characters at a time on Twitter because any way you slice it, “getting into a social media war of words with the president of the United States looks bad.”
Linda Smith, founding partner with Smithcom, a Toronto-based boutique communications firm dedicated to reputation management, agrees that Trump’s tweets are a phenomenon worth preparing for, given media scrutiny and market volatility. The veteran crisis manager, who helped Maple Leaf Foods emerge from its 2008 listeriosis crisis with its reputation intact, advises corporate clients to envision what kind of negative messages could emerge via social media and plan strategic ways to change the narrative if it becomes necessary. The trick, she adds, is managing a respectful redirection of social media discussions with truth and integrity. “GM CEO Mary Barra did that well recently,” she notes, “by finding common ground with Trump’s camp on the need for a strengthened U.S. economy while indicating she would not react to tweets about taxing imports because it takes years to determine manufacturing plant changes.”
Simply put, while there is no question that corporate and public policymakers alike need to be prepared for whatever transpires under the new U.S. administration, crisis management playbooks still need to be strategic. And playing around with the truth is never strategic. “Courage is grace under fire,” says Ivey Professor Denis Shackel, who doesn’t teach executives to cower before anyone in the Ivey Influence and Persuasion Program.
Keep in mind that bowing down to Twitter’s bully king isn’t just poor crisis management. By allowing the Trump camp to spread misinformation unchallenged and appear as a rational and effective manager of America’s economy, companies fall into Trump’s Twitter trap.
As noted in a Vox article entitled “How Trump’s Twitter Tirades Are Changing the Culture of the Car Industry,” the president-elect’s tweets don’t “eliminate the powerful economic forces that have driven so many companies to globalize their supply chains over the last couple of decades. At least not directly. But Trump’s Twitter war against outsourcing could change the political culture around trade, transforming it into a high-profile, hot-button issue like abortion or gay marriage. And that, in turn, could give political momentum to efforts to change the trade institutions that have made globalization seem like such an irresistible force.”
This isn’t a given. But the so-called new crisis management playbook that advises corporate leaders to bow down when bullied by a presidential tweet makes it more likely that support for free trade will evaporate. As the Vox article states, “Trump frames each of his confrontations with manufacturers as a self-contained morality play with a hero (Trump) and a villain (the company trying to outsource). Each time a manufacturing company capitulates to Trump’s pressure campaign, it reinforces a norm against outsourcing. Within a few months, this will be a script that’s familiar to every American voter.”
When dealing with bullies, the best solution is simply to ignore them. This might be an effective response to Trump’s tweets if they remained within the Twitterverse. But misleading statements and unrealistic threats posted by @realDonaldTrump are routinely reported in the mainstream media as if they were just hammered out by the most powerful man—on earth and in cyberspace—giving Trump the public reach he needs to be a real threat. And when you can’t ignore bullies, the strategic response is to stand up for yourself.
Simply put, Trump’s threat to impose punitive tariffs on manufacturers for building things outside the United States needs to be effectively and openly challenged every time it is issued. Instead of being led to believe the Twitter King is forcing international companies with global supply chains to cave on unfair business practices, Americans need to be reminded that there are other markets in the world, including some with more potential. And these markets have been following America’s lead on trade for a long time. Indeed, as Canadian trade expert Lawrence Herman points out in the IBJ Insight “Trumping Trade,” the protectionist policies being proposed by America’s new leader contravene numerous international treaties, which have been “promoted and championed by every U.S. administration since World War II—until now.” And if the new government in Washington ignores the obligations enshrined in these treaties, the rules-based post-WWII multilateral trading system will soon start to crumble.
Furthermore, when it comes to the auto sector, Americans need to understand that tearing up the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) won’t magically make U.S. automotive production soar. Global supply chains have has made the term “foreign-made vehicle” highly outdated, especially in North America, where the Center for Automotive Research (CAR) estimates a Trump import tax on cars built in Canada and Mexico would actually put more than 30,000 U.S. jobs at risk while threatening to drive prices up for consumers. “The United States is currently the largest automotive market in terms of total sales value, and nearly every large global automaker or supplier is present here, but, should the United States pull out of NAFTA, that could change. Vehicle prices would increase, which—all other things equal—will cause the U.S. market to shrink,” CAR’s report concludes.
While the corporate world must stand together to defend its global supply chains, America’s trading partners also need to be prepared to diplomatically rethink relations with the United States. The Trudeau administration in Canada recently reshuffled its cabinet with this in mind. And at the next ministers’ gathering, it might be a good idea to invite Mexico’s trade representatives for a screening of the movie “Love Actually,” which contains the following speech given by Hugh Grant while playing a British prime minister forced to confront a boorish U.S. head of state:
I fear that this has become a bad relationship. A relationship based on the President taking exactly what he wants and casually ignoring all those things that really matter to, erm… Britain. We may be a small country but we’re a great one, too. The country of Shakespeare, Churchill, the Beatles, Sean Connery, Harry Potter. David Beckham’s right foot. David Beckham’s left foot, come to that. And a friend who bullies us is no longer a friend. And since bullies only respond to strength, from now onward, I will be prepared to be much stronger. And the President should be prepared for that.