This blog post features a paper in the latest issue of the PR Journal.
During the 2016 presidential campaign, there emerged a heightened focus on the candidates’ use of one social media platform: Twitter. Whether it was Hillary Clinton’s now-famous “delete your account” tweet, or Donald Trump’s frequent use of the platform to provide “colorful” comment on current events, the platform arguably took center stage. While most of the corresponding popular commentary focused on the candidates’ respective written messages, though, what did we learn from their use of visuals? Visuals have become key to public relations strategy, particularly in online environments. Certainly, visuals are central to popular platforms such as Instagram. Increasingly, though, a quick scroll through one’s Facebook or Twitter feed shows how central visuals have become across the board.
So, this study set out to put aside Clinton and Trump’s written content and focus solely on those tweets that incorporated the use of visuals, asking what their use of visuals indicated about the candidates’ broader Twitter strategy during the campaign. We did so through the lens of media and visual framing, applying two frameworks respectively to determine if, how and the extent to which the candidates reflected certain types of frames in their images, graphics, visual charts, etc.
Their respective visual strategies varied widely, but they did so in unexpected ways. First, we were surprised to find that Clinton’s campaign incorporated visuals in their tweets twice as often—and with more variety—than the Trump campaign. Clinton’s tweets primarily conveyed the campaign’s stance on core issues—such as healthcare, foreign policy, the wage gap, and LGBTQ protections—while highlighting the risk associated with making the wrong choice; the campaign frequently used images to compare Clinton and Trump’s respective positions and qualifications. Conversely, Trump’s campaign used visual tweets primarily to promote campaign stops and poll numbers. While there were far fewer visual tweets to analyze, they often included a picture accompanied by the message, “Thank You, Tampa,” or “Polls are showing we’re in the lead. Thank you.” Trump’s tweets did not discuss the campaign’s stance on specific issues, nor did they discuss the choice between the two candidates or respective qualifications.
While the strategies were starkly different, each informs public relations’ strategic use of visuals—particularly the importance of tactical consistency and knowing who your audience is (and what they expect) on specific social mediums. Certainly, the mandate to research and understand audiences has long been central to public relations practice. With the increasing importance of visuals, though, this study’s findings specifically reinforce how a visual strategy also must address audience expectations specific to certain mediums while supporting the messaging strategy. As research (e.g. Pew, November 2016) has found, Twitter users are, on average, younger, diverse, and hold higher levels of education and income—each reflecting a key segment of Clinton’s targeted audience. They were using the platform to seek information about the candidate and engage with the campaign. Thus, Clinton’s frequent and varied use of visuals to convey details and statistics of policy stances demonstrates they knew who their Twitter audience was, and what they expected. The same holds true for the Trump campaign. Also reflective of the Pew study, Trump supporters are primarily older, white and male. The campaign’s main target audience was not on Twitter in order to learn about the candidate or the candidate’s stance on issues. Thus, his campaign’s use of fewer visual tweets with simpler, straight forward messaging also reflects that the campaign knew who they were targeting.
In all, the main takeaways of this study are simple, but important. We know visuals are instrumental in today’s campaigns. What the 2016 campaign reinforced, though, is that campaigns must be careful not to include a visual simply because we’ve come to expect it. Visuals must match and/or support the message and speak to audience expectations, and they must be tailored to different expectations on different social platforms. Finally, one of the key takeaways from this study is the merit in using the largely underused paradigm of framing in public relations research. Accordingly, the authors suggest a visual framing rubric that could be explored in future, similar studies.
For the full paper, please visit the PR Journal here.
Dean E. Mundy, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor at the University of Oregon. Follow him on Twitter @DEMundy. Nicole Smith Dahmen,, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor at the University of Oregon. Follow her on Twitter @nicoledahmen.
Greenwood, S., Perrin, A., & Duggan, M. (Nov. 11, 2016). Social Media Update 2016: Facebook usage and engagement is on the rise, while adoption of other platforms holds steady. Pew Research Center: Internet & technology. Retrieved May 1, 2018 from: http://www.pewinternet.org/2016/11/11/social-media-update-2016/