(Photo credit: Philipp Küng)
“Never pick a fight with people who buy ink by the barrel,” Mark Twain famously quipped about the outsized power of the press. But what if the fight involves the president tweeting out 140 characters to wield power?
We know first-hand this serious question is on the minds of many organizations working to recast their messages, advocacy approaches and related communications plans to adapt to an administration that ripped up the playbook on traditional presidential communications.
Agree or disagree with the new administration, there is justifiable concern that if the president calls out your company, industry or college, it could hurt stock prices, sales, funding, reputation and more. Lest one think it could not happen to you, just ask Ford, Toyota, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Carrier and now U.C. Berkley.
It should also be noted, the converse is true: being viewed by some as too supportive of the president, as Uber, Nordstrom and the Cleveland Clinic just experienced, can generate reputational damage from customers, employees and other key constituencies. Unfortunately, our society is hyper-polarized – organizations now walk a fine line as public tensions are high and stakeholders from across the political spectrum are speaking out and pressuring organizations from all sides.
Despite the higher visibility and added pressure a presidential tweet would surely cause, the way to prepare and react is not much different than dealing with other potential reputational threats.
Five steps to consider:
- Game it out now. Just as you should regularly consider a range of potential reputational threats, include scenarios that might draw the ire of the president and/or your key constituencies. Work through potential responses (or non-responses) and ensure your leadership agrees and is invested in the process. They will be personally on the hot seat if issues arise – and quick response will be crucial.
- Understand the triggers. The hot buttons are no secret – layoffs, overseas operations, free trade, immigration and national security policies that might put you at cross-purposes with the administration are all areas which could draw fire. Organizations must still set their own priorities and take principled stands on issues they care about – just be fully aware of the potential positive and negative responses it might generate.
- Tell your positive story. Organizations should consistently communicate to internal and external stakeholders as a matter of course. With this administration’s strong views on jobs, “made in America” and the economy overall, it makes sense to proactively communicate your organization’s actions that fit such narratives, when appropriate.
- Avoid direct engagement. This week, the president tweeted about rioters at U.C. Berkeley who set fire and broke windows in response to a controversial speaker – and he floated the idea of pulling the public university’s federal funding. In response, the university tweeted out a clear condemnation of violence/clear affirmation of free speech. They also linked to a larger statement from their chancellor. Importantly, they never once mentioned the president or his tweet. It was the right overall approach and the same one they should have taken even if the president did not tweet about it.
- Nurture relationships. Ultimately, social media is just one communications channel. Leading organizations understand the value of building and maintaining direct, professional relations with a wide-range of audiences. Reach out to transition teams, new appointees, White House staff and Capitol Hill to offer briefings and/or make requests related to your organization or industry. Reputations and relationships forged in good times are invaluable to tap when challenges arise.
It’s as vital now as ever before to have a smart, proactive communication plan promoting the value of your organization or industry. It’s also vital to have a smart reactive crisis plan ready to go when reputational threats arise. The only difference today is that the source of the reputational threat may arise from a mobile device tweeting from somewhere inside that iconic white house in the nation’s capital.
One more thing to consider: it’s probably a good idea to keep an eye on @POTUS and @RealDonaldTrump. Just in case.
John F. Fitzpatrick co-manages Stratacomm, a strategic communications consultancy with offices in D.C. and Detroit. He and the firm offer public affairs, social media, media relations, crisis communications and related services to corporate, association and government clients.