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December 21, 2016

When Trump Attacks: Turn Mean Tweets Into Positive PR

trump-vf-prSome PR pros consider Donald Trump a master of public relations. The $2 billion worth of media coverage his campaign earned helped him stand out in a crowded GOP field and win his party’s nomination. And one of Trump’s standout skills is his facility with Twitter insults. No one is immune to the POETUS Twitter attack. He has gone after public companies, the occasional private citizen, and especially the press, both individually and en masse. In the most recent dustup, Trump lashed out at @VanityFair, presumably for its very unflattering review of the Trump Grill.

But Vanity Fair publisher Graydon Carter is himself no PR slouch, and he’s a veteran of one of the most famous Trump feuds. Recognizing an opportunity, VF immediately threw up a subscription ad proclaiming it “the magazine Donald Trump doesn’t want you to read.”

It worked. Not only did the restaurant review attract over a million views, but VF subscriptions soared. Within 24 hours of Trump’s tweet, it added 13,000 subscribers, the highest number ever sold in a single day at Conde Nast.

Are Trump’s Tweets Good For Business?

So, are  Twitter attacks from Trump something brands should welcome? I laughed when I saw Katie Paine’s tweet, but in some cases, companies can benefit from his ire, especially if they’re media brands. Trump has repeatedly insulted the press, slamming the “failing New York Times,” “lying CNN,” and lambasting a group of media at his first off-the-record meeting after the election for what he deems dishonest coverage.

Yet the insults haven’t harmed the press, at least not yet. The New York Times reported that it  added 41,000 digital subscribers in the week following the election, the largest increase since it began offering digital subscriptions. Other major media and watchdog groups have said they’ve experienced strong surges in support, so it’s probably a general response by progressives to his election.

But what about other organizations? After Trump tweeted that Boeing’s new 747 Air Force One should be scrapped due to its $4 billion cost, Boeing’s stock price dropped, temporarily wiping out $550 million in shareholder value before rebounding somewhat the next day. A week later he hate-tweeted about the high cost of the F-35 fighter jet made by Lockheed Martin; it, too, was followed by a plunge in Lockheed’s stock price.

For a large public company, a nasty tweet from the President-Elect is like a lightning bolt – unwelcome, unexpected, and possibly dangerous. It can also work as a signal for supporters to pile on and will invariably attract unwanted media coverage.

So what’s a Boeing or a Lockheed to do? In some cases, nothing. If it’s a passing insult that’s more a matter of opinion or taste than fact, a nasty Trump tweet may be better left alone. Why risk picking a fight with someone who has a huge social bully pulpit unless unless the stakes are high?

In the case of incorrect information, however, a prompt response is warranted. That’s why Boeing’s statement detailing the facts of its Defense Department contracts was a smart move. Ditto for Lockheed Martin, which released details describing measures to limit costs for the F-35.

It seems that a nasty Trump tweetstorm can actually be good news for media, underdog brands, or any organization with a progressive customer base likely to rally in support of those values. But for a major public company, the challenge of a Trump attack is far trickier. Despite the unique nature of the POETUS Twitter, there are effective PR and media relations rules that apply here.

Respond quickly. Stories about Trump’s tweets (or seemingly off-the-cuff comments) will be picked up by news media instantly, so a delayed response won’t make it into the first news cycle. Given the blistering pace of news, a short, measured response beats a slower and more detailed one nearly every time.

But take follow-up offline. It isn’t always possible, but Lockheed’s offer to meet with Trump had the right tone. To litigate its case in the media, given the complexity of the fuller story, would have been a losing game. We saw this a year ago in the feud between Amazon and The New York Times through dueling Medium posts after Amazon’s Jay Carney objected to the paper’s feature on Amazon’s workplace culture. At some point, it devolved into a pissing match with no clear winners.

Be respectful. It goes without saying that a future president has the upper hand in a public conversation, no matter how aggressive his posts may be. Even Vanity Fair, which adopted a cheeky tone consistent with its brand, stopped short of being mean or vulgar.

Let advocates defend you if possible. Sometimes loyal customers, super-users, partners, and other advocates can do the “dirty work” of arguing with the president-elect, as in the case of Trump’s attack on Vanity Fair. Non-media companies, who are unlikely to have a natural constituency among members of the press, can still tap allies to speak up for what is factually correct.

Use humor. A genuinely witty response is a great leveler. “Modern Family” writer Danny Zuker, who famously feuded with Trump on Twitter way back in 2013, offers the ironic advice to choose your opponent wisely. Yet if Trump attacks them, brands don’t have a choice. But in his post, Zuker inadvertently offers the best advice of all about how to win a Twitter war. It’s simple: be funnier than your attacker. It usually helps.

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