On April 11, 2015, T-Mobile CEO John Legere was staying at a hotel in New York City owned by real-estate mogul Donald Trump when he complained about a drummer outside his room. In response, hotel staff asked the drummer to move. Trump himself got word of the incident, and felt the appropriate response was an off-the-cuff insulting tweet:
.@JohnLegere T-Mobile service is terrible! Why can’t you do something to improve it for your customers. I don’t want it in my buildings.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 12, 2015
Trump’s tweet sparked a highly publicized virtual spat between the two figures, who collectively have more than 9 million Twitter followers. While Trump, who is now the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination, and Legere remain online adversaries, they are digital-age figureheads who both employ a communications strategy built on insults and political incorrectness, undesirable traits that have somehow become valuable currency for the T-Mobile and Trump brands.
The Twitter fight last spring wasn’t the lone instance of these two belittling others; both are well known for lashing out at competitors. Trump’s campaign has hinged on blasting opponents such as “Little Marco” Rubio and a “low energy” Jeb Bush. Likewise, Legere routinely criticizes the company’s three largest competitors — Sprint, AT&T, and Verizon — in a fashion that would be considered uncouth in most settings. At a 2014 press event, Legere called AT&T and Verizon “high and mighty duopolists that are raping you for every penny you have,” telling customers “the f—ers hate you.”
The duo’s hostile speech isn’t limited to competitors. Trump’s candidacy began generating huge media attention after he typecast Mexican immigrants as rapists and criminals, and he since has suggested banning all Muslims from entering the country.
Legere hasn’t broadly attacked religions and nationalities, but the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to equal access to the Internet, was the victim of Legere’s wrath after it criticized the company’s Binge On program, which many feel violates net neutrality principles. In a video response posted on Twitter, Legere criticized the organization, rhetorically asking, “Who the f— are you, anyway, EFF?”
— John Legere (@JohnLegere) January 7, 2016
Legere apologized to the EFF after public backlash, something that has been rare for both Legere and Trump, at least among their constituents. Legere routinely uses brash language and hurls insults, but since the targets are usually companies or CEOs, nobody seems to care.
If anything, Legere’s antics have been a good thing for T-Mobile. Since buyout talks with surrounding T-Mobile have fizzled, most media attention the company has received has focused on Legere, and very little of it is critical. And, while Legere has been dropping f-bombs, T-Mobile rapidly has been scooping up subscribers. Just as Trump was early in his campaign, Legere is seen either as a goofy, anti-corporate CEO who poses little threat to the status quo, or, by his supporters, as a crusader for what the customer really wants.
Trump operates in a similar dynamic. His supporters laud him for a lack of political incorrectness and a tendency to speak his mind, regardless of how offensive those thoughts may be. Critics, however, view the two leaders quite differently — Trump’s opponents see him as a global threat; Legere’s position doesn’t warrant such a visceral reaction.
As a result of their bombastic personas, the CEO is courting customers dissatisfied with inefficient, big wireless firms, and the politician is courting disaffected white voters who miss the “good old days” of a strong middle class and racial segregation. There never has been a CEO like Legere, and never a politician like Trump, and that’s likely because public figureheads never have had a medium like Twitter with which to communicate to the general populous.
The two use Twitter differently. Legere is witty and employs back-and-forth communication, often in the name of furthering customer service. Trump, on the other hand, uses it as a pulpit in his tailored, never-fact-checked social media echo chamber.
Both approaches get results. Take the duo’s latest clash on Twitter. In November, Trump took the time out of his busy campaign to say he was happy the mixed-martial-arts fighter Ronda Rousey lost a fight (“not a nice person,” Trump reasoned). Legere was quick to respond:
— John Legere (@JohnLegere) November 16, 2015
Legere’s tweet was retweeted 596 times, but Trump, as he has done so surprisingly often during primary season, won this battle: His follow-up criticism of Legere’s management garnered 1,459 retweets. It’s unclear if the duo will have another digital battle, especially if Trump takes the White House, but one thing is certain — Trump and Legere have little reason to abandon their similarly grating communication styles. It’s a strategy that’s proven effective.