In 2016 Annual Conference, Capital Chapter, Professional Development

Blogger: Amanda Handley (Capital Chapter)

Social Media Use in the 2016 Presidential Campaign: What’s Worked and What We Can Expect
Presented by: Lawrence J. Parnell, Assocate Professor and Program Director, Master’s in Strategic PR at The George Washington University

Larry Parnell, from George Washington University, opened his session by joking that he was “far away from Washington to be an expert” on all things politics.  His discussion of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump and their use of media in the 2016 Presidential Campaign primarily focused on the results of two research efforts. One study is from Pew and the other is the PEORIA Project (Public Echoes of Rhetoric in America). The PEORIA Project’s goal is to understand how voters react to campaign messages. As a side note, Parnell recommended Pew Research as a free resource as all of the studies they conduct are free to the public.

Website Content:

The Pew research referenced in this session showed that Trump is relying heavily on earned media (holding many press conferences, etc.) with the vast majority of his content connecting to news articles and video clips published by traditional media outlets. Clinton is focusing her efforts on owned media (her website and social media pages). In fact, 80 percent of the links on Clinton’s site connect to campaign-produced content, most of which is written by former journalists. One commonality, though, is that like President Obama, both camps are relying on social media to control campaign outreach.

How this election looks different:

  • Unlike the 2008 and 2012 campaigns, this election is focused on a controlled message, which means that there is very little dialogue on the websites – there are no calls for comments on articles or for feedback about how stances impact.

  • None of the campaign websites have pages set up specifically for demographic groups (Latinos, African-Americans, women, etc.) Instead, campaigns are letting voters research issues that are important to them (instead of assuming that all women are concerned about healthcare and so on).

  • The use of video is dramatically increased from previous election cycles. Clinton is posting up to five videos daily, and Trump posts at least one. There are several factors influencing this change:

    • Today’s technology makes it easier to create and edit your own videos. You no longer need a full production team to produce a video. Anyone can shoot one and post it online.

    • Campaign staffs are more tech-savvy.

Social Media:

Although both Clinton and Trump are actively engaged on social media, there are some significant differences in how they use social media. Parnell focused mainly on the differences in the utilization of Twitter. Items of note:

  • Only Trump actively retweets other content. And 78 percent of his retweets were from the public and his supporters.

  • Both Trump and Clinton had millions of followers when they announced their respective candidacies, putting them well ahead of the other candidates.

  • Since early May, Trump’s social engagement has mirrored his earned media coverage numbers.

  • Twitter followers can be an asset. Trump used his Twitter to close the gap between him and Hillary Clinton and to get ahead of the rest of the GOP primary field. Additionally, Bernie Sanders effectively utilized Twitter to spread his message and close the gap between him and his primary opponent, Clinton.

Application to Strategic PR:

  • Sponsored content is growing in use. It’s extremely low cost, making it an effective play for many candidates.

  • There is a reduced dependency on traditional media to communicate messages and to impact public opinion. This has real implications for media relations and the media itself.

  • Engagement and followers are key measures for success. However, it is imperative to assess why they follow you and determine if they support you or are just curious.

  • The increased use of video is an effective means of message delivery. It reduces dependency on traditional broadcast media, and consumers (voters) accept it and share it with friends, creating a viral impact.

  • Twitter is a valuable means to offset a strong, well-funded opponent or competitor. (See: Bernie Sanders.)

  • Media coverage shared on Twitter can build followers.

Use Caution:

  • Retweeting requires extra diligence. Retweets imply endorsement, so it’s imperative that you vet what you retweet.

  • Don’t confuse followers with supporters. Just because someone follows you doesn’t mean they support you.

  • Avoiding the media and relying too heavily on sponsored and owned content is a calculated risk.

    • The media will defend itself if you ignore it or challenge it. They may pile on when the opportunity presents itself. (See: Trump and Washington Post, Clinton and the email catastrophe, Clinton and Benghazi, and Trump and questionable business dealings.)

Final Thoughts:

Dana Perino, former White House Press Secretary, has said that as a public relations professional, it’s your job to advocate for your client to the media. But it’s also your job to advocate for the media to your client. You need to help your clients understand that the media can be helpful. After all, media relations is about relationships.


  1. Is Trump’s constant retweeting strategic or just laziness?

    1. Likely laziness. However, he does have a very small staff. And, Trump also appears to only be concerned about being in the news, not what the sentiment of those stories are.

  2. Are you seeing a shift/trickle-down in local elections?

    1. Yes because it’s a really cost-effective way of reaching people.

    2. However, people will still be doing town halls etc., because this provides them with content.

  3. Does paid media placement matter? Do you need to place your ads in reputable sources like the New York Times?

    1. He doesn’t know for sure, but it doesn’t appear to matter. People do not appear to be vetting the sources of where they get their “news.”

  4. Do you think Trump’s advisors cringe when he speaks or do you think it’s part of their strategy because it seems to work?

    1. Not sure, but the biggest challenge in our profession is finding the right way, time, and place to say, “That wasn’t good.”

  5. Do you think it’s calculated that their messaging appears to be aimed only at their base?

    1. Yes, but it’s a dangerous choice because – as of right now – Trump’s base alone isn’t enough to get him elected. He’ll need more voters than just his base.

  6. Is this election an anomaly or an indication of where we’re going as a nation?

    1. It depends on the results of the election.

ParnellLawrence J. Parnell, M.B.A., is an associate professor and director of the George Washington University Master’s in Strategic Public Relations program, named the best PR Education Program for 2015 by PR Week. During a 34-year career in the private and public sectors, he has worked in government, corporate and consulting segments, and national political campaigns. He was recognized as PR Professional of the Year in 2003 by PR Week, and was named to the PR News Hall of Fame in 2009. In addition to his work at GW, he operates Parnell Communications, a boutique consultancy specializing in executive communication, strategy development and organizational effectiveness.


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