Trump or No Trump, Now is a Good Time to Strengthen Your Company’s Public Affairs Capabilities
12/16/19 – – Is your company vulnerable to a Trump Twitter attack? Being ambushed online by the President of the United States is a scenario corporate communicators are planning for as a realistic crisis threat. Is this fear — a popular topic at communication industry conferences — rational? While many mass media companies, Nike, GM and Harley-Davidson have been targets, statistical analysis would almost certainly yield low levels of danger for most corporations. Nevertheless, the threat is being taken seriously by companies of all sizes in all industries.
Rational or irrational, that’s a good thing.
Trump or no Trump, successful businesses understand the importance of strategically managing their relationships with public officials at all levels (mayors, city council members, attorneys general, governors, Congressional representatives and presidents). So, when clients ask me about today’s toxic political environment and the best response to a Trump Twitter storm, I first encourage an honest assessment of their company’s relevant internal functions, public positions and core beliefs. Here are some of the questions I ask:
- What is the current state of your public affairs programs? How do you interact (proactively/reactively/contentiously) with government officials at the local, state and national levels? Who is in charge of this responsibility and have you set goals for these initiatives? What messages and priorities do you communicate? Have you had any interaction directly with the Trump administration?
- Have you been drawn into conflict with public officials before? What issues/positions/people lit the fuse? Were you alone during these confrontations, or did you have allies in the fight? How did these battles play out? What did you learn from these encounters?
- What makes you most vulnerable to attracting President Trump’s attention and anger? (I find that if a company comes to me for help, they have specific ideas of what places them in the tweeter-in-chief’s crosshairs.) Is the President’s potential ire based on misinformation or a misunderstanding of your positions (that we may be able to correct), or do you have irreconcilable differences?
- Do you believe specific Trump actions and/or beliefs run counter to your company’s purpose and values? Are you able to state your purpose and values clearly? Are they understood by employees throughout the company? Have your actions been consistent with those principles?
- Have you done anything to make a disagreement with President Trump unnecessarily personal? Are your differences based on policies or personalities? Have leaders within your company made their personal/political feelings known publicly about Donald Trump (negative or positive). If so, is this part of a well-thought-out strategy?
- Who will be your primary spokesperson if you should be drawn into battle? Is she/he prepared?
- What potential harm could come from a public battle with the President?
- What potential good could come from such an encounter?
- Staying true to your purpose and priorities, are their ways you can minimize the chances of an attack?
- How can you be ready to respond effectively if an attack happens tomorrow?
Informed by that assessment, we develop action and response plans. In most cases, the primary objectives in the wake of an attack will be to deescalate the situation by:
- Confidently/respectively stating the company’s position.
- Making clear how that position is consistent with the company’s purpose and values, as well as the public good.
- Keeping the focus on policy differences, not personalities.
- Offering tangible steps to be taken to address the issue in play.
- Underscoring the company’s desire to be part of a solution.
Developing action and response plans entails:
- Identification of acceptable (consistent with purpose and priorities) actions to reduce the chances of attack.
- Identification and activation of internal and external allies helpful in battle. (It has never been more important to keep employees informed/active and for companies to participate in and whenever possible lead trade associations, chambers of commerce and other industry coalitions to assure you never have to fight alone.)
- Scenario planning to map out the most likely triggers for attacks by the President and the best company actions/responses.
- Development of response positions and statements based on these scenarios.
- Planning to maximize the use of all communication channels, including the company’s social media platforms and internal venues.
- If time permits, execution of a simulated response drill.
As I underscore in The Crisis Preparedness Quotient, it’s best for most companies and corporate leaders to stay as apolitical as possible. Both ends of the political spectrum in our nation hold passionate, entrenched beliefs. Pick a side, and you turn off or outrage half the country, and possibly half or more of your customer base. Most companies and individuals running afoul of President Trump have stepped (intentionally or unintentionally) into the minefield of politics.
The threat of ambushes online and off will not end when Donald Trump leaves office. For financial institutions and tech companies, the potential attacks by a President Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders will require equal levels of prevention, preparation and response. And believe me, mayors and governors are capable of giving you plenty of headaches. Regardless of the motivation, strengthening your public affairs programs and personnel will pay lasting dividends.