Love him or hate him, many people give Donald Trump credit for understanding on an almost visceral level how the media landscape has changed—and how to use that to his advantage. But Kim Kardashian could probably give The Donald a run for his money in that department, and her latest feud with Taylor Swift is a perfect example as to why.
On the surface, at least, the Republican presidential nominee and the model/actress and wife of rapper Kanye West appear to have little in common, apart from their celebrity status. But both have shown a superior ability to take command of their own media narratives—using the tools of social media and social networks—and turn it to their own ends.
In Trump’s case, the former reality TV star has been able to do an end run around traditional media coverage in a number of situations, going direct to his fans and support base with his message, thanks to massive following on Twitter.
Trump has also benefitted from plenty of mainstream TV coverage—as has Kardashian. But in most cases, that coverage comes after they have released their own media content through their own channels, and that gives them an almost unprecedented amount of control over how the story evolves.
Take the latest Swift feud, which revolves around a song that West wrote called “Famous” in which he talks about Swift in a way that the pop singer has complained was offensive and misogynistic, implying that they might sleep together.
The details of the back-and-forth that this triggered between Swift and West/Kardashian is something with which only tabloid magazines and websites are probably concerned. But what’s interesting from a media perspective is how Kardashian responded. In a nutshell, she used social media against Swift in a particularly effective way.
After Swift complained about West’s lyrics, the rapper said that he spoke to her beforehand and got her approval. Swift, however, said this wasn’t true, and did so via multiple accounts on multiple social media platforms as well as official press releases.
Instead of launching into a he-said and she-said, Kardashian posted a single response on Snapchat—a short, jerky video recording of West talking to Swift about the song. Although there are legal questions about whether she was right to do so (because in California, both parties to a recording must agree to it), the effect was devastating.
As a number of media-watchers have noted, the approach taken by Swift and Kardashian couldn’t be more different. Swift posted identical messages to her Instagram and Twitter and other accounts, and released a statement to the New York Times and other outlets. Her opponent posted a single video clip to a single platform—and a platform where content not only can’t be shared easily, but is known to disappear.
At first glance, this might seem like a critical error. But Kardashian’s message likely spread far more widely than Swift’s because of its nature, and she undoubtedly knew that it would do so. Snapchat’s insular, ephemeral qualities aren’t a barrier when you have an Instagram account that consists solely of screen captures from your Snapchat messages, as Kardashian does.
In effect, Kardashian relied on her social network to do the media distribution work for her in the same way that media outlets like BuzzFeed have taken a distributed approach to their journalism. That shows Kardashian is not only a smart businesswoman who understands the power of mobile apps and gaming, but someone who appreciates the evolution of PR and media as well.
Until recently, all of this drama would have unfolded through the pages of People or the National Enquirer—or even TMZ, for that matter. Tapes would have been leaked, anonymous sources quoted and tearful interviews given.
Now, all the action happens in real time on Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat. Most of the information comes directly from the artists or celebrities involved. It may seem trivial compared with what has been happening in Turkey and elsewhere—and in many ways it is—but from a media perspective, the same concepts are at play: Namely, the power of networked distribution.
In Swift’s case, thankfully, the bombs are only rhetorical. But the lessons are the same: the tools of media are in everyone’s hands now, and the results of that revolution are as unpredictable as they are powerful. And that applies whether you are Kim Kardashian or Donald Trump.