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Why Sarah Sanders used the Notes app, just like many celebrities

Notes, a pre-downloaded iOS app, has become the go-to for quick statements from prominent people in PR crises.
Photo illustration of the notes app on a phone.
The iOS app, Notes.NBC News / Alamy

Keen observers of the social media habits of celebrities might have noticed a familiar backdrop for Sarah Sanders' announcement that President Donald Trump would be signing a government funding bill — off-white background paired with Helvetica font.

Yes, it was Apple's Notes app.

The text app has emerged as the go-to for public figures making announcements on Twitter, with a screenshot providing a way to sidestep the social media platform's character count.

“The Notes app gives people of prominence a way of connecting directly with the public, and gives them more space than Twitter because they're not limited by 280 characters,” Tony Freinberg, president of the public relations firm Edendale Strategies, told NBC News.

The Notes-based celebrity tweet is a genre unto its own.

Twitter founder Jack Dorsey was an early proponent of the app. In 2010 he called it his "favorite app," and just last year he tweeted "I spend most of my day in the iOS Notes app."

The apology note

Celebrities use the app to convey a variety of messages. Cardi B used the app to address her on-again off-again relationship with the rapper Offset; Whitney Cummings used the app to bring awareness to exotic caged animals that might be in danger during the California wildfires; and Billy Eichner posted five Notes screenshots to discuss who has the right to say “f-----.”

But the celebrity Notes apology is what the app is perhaps most notorious for.

It started in 2015, when Ariana Grande apologized to her fans using the app after a video of her licking a doughnut and saying “I hate Americans. I hate America” surfaced. “I am EXTREMELY proud to be an American,” the pop sensation wrote via Notes.

Since then, you'll be hard-pressed to find a celebrity apology on a different platform. Lady Gaga recently used Notes to apologize for collaborating with R. Kelly, and Armie Hammer apologized for the way he derided celebrities who mourned the passing of Stan Lee by posting via Notes.

Freinberg said celebrities are inclined to use the app because “it feels much more personal, and much more intimate” than other forms of communication. “It implies that the statement is something you yourself have written, not something your publicist or someone else wrote,” he said.

'Bypass the gatekeepers'

The funding announcement was not the first time Sanders used Notes. In October she appeared to use the app in a statement about suspicious packages that were sent to prominent Trump critics and CNN.

Jennifer Magas, a clinical associate professor of public relations at Pace University and vice president at Magas Media Consultants, said the app also makes it easier to sidestep the media.

“The Notes app is the fastest way to bypass the gatekeepers and go directly to the public," Magas said. "It’s the easiest way to get your message across.”

“Is it good for us as PR people?” Magas added. “Probably not.”

Freinberg said the statements also feel more casual.

“When you do a formal sit-in down, it feels more old-fashioned. Notes app statements feel more modern and more immediate,” he said.

Hunter Harris, an associate editor at Vulture, agreed, but added that because they’re meant to deliver messages quickly, they are “not always concise.”

“They’re often rambly or completely off topic or poorly written,” she told NBC News.

Harris also thinks the statements can feel performative, like the people posting them are purposefully trying to seem like their response wasn’t “engineered.”

When Taylor Swift used the app in 2016 to address her feud with Kim Kardashian-West and Kanye West, she famously wrote in her message, “I would very much like to be excluded from this narrative, one that I have never asked to be a part of, since 2009.”

But Swift came under fire for her statement after people noticed the word “Search” was in the left corner above her message. This made social media users wonder if her Notes statement was pre-written, not spur-of-the-moment, as the app implies.

Statement skeptics

Freinberg encouraged skepticism when reading the statements, especially when they’re apologies.

“Prominent people would like you to think it's about timing,” he told NBC News. “But it doesn't take any longer to write a tweet. It doesn't take any longer to get on the phone with a journalist.”

But entertainment-industry related scandals are different than issues of national security and policy. Many on the internet found themselves amazed the White House Press secretary announced something of such importance using Notes.

Magas said seeing Sanders statement left her asking: "Was this the best venue to do this?"

“It really does look like she hastily wrote the message. It certainly didn't give an impression of a lot of planning,” Magas said. “Who announces a national emergency via Notes app?”

Freinberg echoed those sentiments.

“Does using Notes to declare a national emergency really have the correct gravitas?” he said.

Harris agreed and referenced a rogue black dot that appeared on Sander's message, which could have been accidentally added during cropping if the "Markup" button was pressed.

“It seemed like yesterday was the lowest point I’d ever seen of a Notes app statement of any kind. The random dot was so cheap and tacky,” she said.

“So many pop stars can perfect the act of sharing a Notes app statement and our government cannot?” Harris said.