When Trump Comes Tweeting: A New Playbook for Boards

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Richard Levick

What would you recommend if you were on the board of Ford Motor Co., Boeing Co., or Lockheed Martin Corp., all of which have had tête-à-têtes with the incoming leader of the free world? Welcome to the age of the suddenly very bully pulpit. The most powerful thumbs in the world belong to Donald J. Trump, who will soon become the 45th President of the United States.

In mid-December, when Trump despaired that Lockheed Martin’s cost overruns on the F-35 joint strike fighter “were tremendous,” the company’s stock lost $4 billion in market capitalization in a matter of hours. Even though the company quickly recovered those losses when its stock price stabilized, Trump’s tweet triggered some discomfiting moments.

No one understands better how to wield the powers of Twitter, the 24/7 news cycle, and a cult of personality than Donald J. Trump quite like the man himself. To one extent or another, Lockheed Martin Corp., Toyota Motor Corp., Carrier, Mondelez International (parent of Nabisco), Ford Motor Co. , and Boeing Co., have all been caught in Trump’s Twitter maelstrom. Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, in a proactive move to get the target off its back before the opening salvo, wisely announced that it would invest $1 billion and create 2,000 U.S. jobs. A smart play, but as all newlyweds ask, “Will it last?”

We’re in unchartered waters here—and by “we,” I include C-suite executives, corporate directors, and communications counselors like me who advise corporations on how to enhance their brand equity, engage with decision makers, and weather inevitable storms that come with doing business. Social media, fake news, and a new president have changed the rules of engagement.

So what is the new rubric? For most publicly traded companies over the near term, the right response is the easy one: for your shareholders’ sake, meet Trump more than halfway if his demand isn’t too outrageous, and give him the early victory lap. But at some point, after Trump’s modus operandi on these matters inevitably hits some turbulence, that dynamic is likely to change. Watch this space closely, particularly the business-to-consumer tech companies who have millions of customers conditioned to social engagement.

In the meantime, how can a company prepare for presidential squalls or getting caught in the crosswinds of a Twitter-induced tsunami?

There are scores of precautions a publicly traded company should consider, but they can be boiled down to four imperatives.

Engage employees. Trump’s “Make America Great Again” mantra proved enormously popular in America’s industrial heartland. His administration’s public positioning will be devoted to job preservation, reinvigorating the manufacturing base, and sticking up for the little guy. In such a climate, relations with national and local union leaders and heads of employee groups will be doubly important. If a company is suddenly the subject of public scrutiny, its labor and management will want to present a united front. Politics, it is said, makes strange bedfellows. So does business in tough situations.

Enlist allies. Empowering third-party champions has always been an important part of any corporation’s public affairs and communications arsenal, but now it’s absolutely vital. The press and public in today’s environment are inherently suspicious of big corporations and paid spokespeople. In the clutch, customers, vendors, suppliers, community leaders, local environmental advocates, philanthropic heads, Chambers of Commerce, et al., will have far more credibility. The more social media-savvy—and more genuinely connected to grassroots movements—these champions are, the better allies they are for your company.

Prepare now. Companies should use “peacetime” wisely by distilling facts and messages into 140 characters; creating photos and videos for other social channels (e.g., Facebook, Snapchat, YouTube, etc.) that make emotionally appealing messages; track media socially in a sophisticated way that predicts trends; and build a social army now to articulate track records in U.S. job creation and economic growth.

Emphasize speed. Virtually every crisis communications plan in corporate America can be rendered obsolete by the proliferation of Donald J. Trump’s use of social media. If a company is being attacked via social media, it cannot rely on conventional communications to respond. Corporations need to put in place ultra-quick turnaround systems that tap leading-edge media. Build your arsenal of information, army of activists, and strengthen your reflexes now. Have the leader of the company’s digital media team report directly to the board. Integrate your silos so that legal, investor relations, government relations, public relations, digital, and brand practices all know and trust each other. Board members and senior teams need to be put through their paces via scenario drills and full-scale rehearsals.

The most effective way for a company to combat thumb power is through thumb power of its own.


Richard Levick, Esq., @richardlevick, is chair and CEO of Levick, a global communications and public affairs agency specializing in risk, crisis, and reputation management.

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