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"I am the agency!" - A fireside chat with Justin McConney, Donald Trump's director of social media

Rarely a day goes by where Donald Trump’s Twitter feed isn’t causing a stir somehow, somewhere. Just this week, a number of media outlets reported on the fact that the presidential hopeful “went silent” on Twitter following his loss to Ted Cruz in the Iowa caucus – then broke his silence 15 hours later with a string of tweets touting his “long-shot great finish” in the state.

The billionaire businessman’s social media accounts often get as much press as Trump himself, and the man behind them is Justin McConney, director of new media for the Trump Organization. The Drum hosted a fireside chat with McConney in New York, moderated by Found Remote executive editor Natan Edelsburg, to find out how he has helped turn Trump into the social media powerhouse he is today.

During the chat, McConney told the audience about how he got his start working with Trump five years ago. After graduating from the School of Visual Arts, he was working as a freelance video editor and knew someone at the Trump Organization’s golf division who asked him to create a video that would “hype up the crowd” at a Trump event in Florida.

“I did this ‘Best of Donald Trump’ video which had all of his greatest hits over the years and I set it to hard rock music,” he said.

But when putting the video together, one thing stuck out to McConney – Trump had almost no social media presence. He said there were no Trump YouTube channels, and engagement on his Twitter and Facebook accounts were low.

To change that, McConney pitched to Trump the following week to see if he would hire him as director of new media. Trump said yes, and the rest is history.

Five years later, McConney says a lot of Trump’s social media strategy is still based upon two key rules he set for the real-estate mogul when they began working together: “be authentic and give your fans what they want.”

When McConney first started filming Trump’s video blogs – which he would then post on YouTube, Twitter and Facebook - McConney said he made sure that they had a “low-tech” feel to them so if they went viral and ended up on TV, people would realize the videos didn’t look professional enough to have been filmed at a network and would instead check out his Twitter or Facebook to watch the clips.

He also encouraged ‘The Apprentice’ host to do the video blogs right from his office and to keep his desk messy, so people would feel like they were really seeing the real Donald.

“I didn’t want to run this like a typical celebrity social media account where its ten marketing people sitting in a room every two weeks, and they’re going back and forth, and nothing gets done,” he said. “This has to be me and him, working on this together.”

At first McConney was doing a lot of Trump’s tweeting and posting for him, then things started to change after a few years.

McConney said that once Trump started to realize the power of social media and began to see how it “could really drive the news cycle,” he started getting really into it and began tweeting himself from his smartphone.

“I was happy when he started tweeting himself because I didn’t have to get woken up at six in the morning anymore,” McConney said.

While they’ve had to build out Trump’s social media team a bit in the past year now that he’s running for president, McConney revealed it is still a small communications operation.

“People always ask me, ‘What agency do you use?’ I say, I am the agency,” he said.

Towards the end of his talk, McConney gave attendees some insight into how exactly he’s helped turned Trump into what some call a “master of social media.”

When it comes to using newer platforms like Vine or Periscope, he said he is always careful to make sure Trump’s initial posts are tied to a certain event or theme to try and get people talking.

“I give each social media format their own exclusive thing,” he said, adding that the first time they used Periscope was to live-stream Trump’s presidential bid announcement.

He also stressed the importance of not being afraid to experiment on social media.

“That’s the great thing about social media, you can just try things. It doesn’t cost a lot, you can put it out there, you see the reaction. If it doesn’t work, move onto the next thing. If it works, you’ve got something.”

By the end, he’d also answered the question that was likely to have been on every audience member’s mind: What is Donald Trump like in real life?

“He’s very approachable. People always ask me, ‘What’s it like? Do you get to talk to him or see him?’ like he’s the Wizard of Oz behind this curtain,” he said. “But he’s really approachable. I'd walk into his office every day.”

Minda Smiley

Minda Smiley is The Drum's US advertising reporter, covering how brands and agencies are using today's platforms, technologies and innovations to connect with consumers.

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