What a CEO should do when Trump attacks

What a CEO should do when Trump attacks

Crain’s New York Business

By Stan Steinreich

The president-elect has changed the rules of engagement, so companies must as well. Sometimes that means punching back

Many major U.S. corporations were stunned by tweeting President-elect Donald Trump taking on the likes of Boeing and Carrier because he disagreed with their plans. It had nothing to do with political affiliation or affinity, but rather that we are entering a new world where our national leader takes directly to social media to rattle the cage of corporate America. Now that the gloves are off, how will corporations respond to this new dynamic in public diplomacy?

I just came from a meeting with a New York military contractor worried about whether it could be a target of a Trump tweet because of its pricing. “Look, we follow government specs, we go through a bidding process, we win a contract,” its executives said. “Now, is the contractor going to rescind that deal, and how do we respond when he comes at us?”

The challenge for corporations and corporate communicators generally is that social media has been the second or third communication platform to tell their stories, not the primary one. The tool of choice is a well-crafted press release that states the company reaction, most likely in a muted form. It is more than 140 characters, and certainly not penned with the spice and vigor of a tweet.

The last thing most corporations want to do is publicly take on a president or Washington for fear of retaliation and retribution. That is why you rarely see anything more than a paragraph’s statement when a company is hit by an OSHA or Environmental Protection Agency fine. You want to be responsive to your stakeholders, so you issue a tightly-worded press release and move on. If you are lucky, you can do this on a Friday after the market closes, with the hopes that not many people are seeing it—Saturday being the day when the fewest Americans read the newspapers or watch the news.

But Twitter is a whole new ball game. When The Donald tweets, millions of followers see it, and then they retweet it. His pithy phrases echo through cyberspace.

So the corporate response needs to change. Instead of balanced language, companies need to be more provocative. This will no doubt go against the grain of many corporate executives who fear adding fuel to the fire. But as Momma used to say, sometimes you need to take the bully on and punch back. So when the tweet says, “cancel the contract with Boeing,” is it appropriate to respond “Mr. President, we honor our agreements…but happy to work with you on a resolution.” When he threatens a company that needs to move jobs out of the U.S., it would be best to respond,” Mr. President, happy to discuss ways we can stay.”

We have a new communication landscape and corporations need to be prepared that not only is our new president using social media more effectively, but they are going to have to move with the times and join the social-media discussion much more rapidly than most have. Trump’s tweeting as a primary source of direct communication is going to raise the prominence of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, SnapChat and other platforms to a level we have never seen. Corporations need to prepare, and fast!

Stan Steinreich is the president and CEO of Steinreich Communications Group, a global public-relations firm based in Manhattan.

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