The first few weeks of President Trump’s administration have been some of the most controversial in modern American history. From hastily withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, to fast-tracking the approval of the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines, to barring citizens from seven majority-Muslim countries from entering the U.S., some of the executive orders Trump has signed have resulted in protests across the country.
But it’s not just Trump and his administration that have been the target of real-world and social media protests. Several companies have been caught up in the fray, most notably those who were perceived to be, at best, indifferent, and at worst, complicit with Trump’s orders. Just ask Uber, who saw the #DeleteUber hashtag trending on social media after the company allowed drivers to pick up passengers at New York’s JFK airport during the protests. Many saw this as Uber, whose CEO, Travis Kalanick, sat on Trump’s business advisory council, trying to break up the one-hour strike New York taxi drivers implemented in response to the ban. Kalanick has since resigned from Trump’s council.
And it’s not just customers who are venting their frustrations over the Trump administration toward companies that appear to be friendly with it. Employees at some ostensibly Trump-friendly companies have vented their frustrations internally and even quit over their employer’s involvement with the Trump administration.
All this begs the question: What is a company to do in a time of political turmoil and social upheaval? After all, many companies’ successes–especially larger ones in the fields of technology, transportation, finance, and science–depend to a degree on their involvement with and relationship to the current administration in power.
With an administration that’s polarizing, it can be difficult to run your business successfully and keep your customers (of all political leanings) happy. We spoke with several public relations experts in crisis management and company image to get their advice on how businesses can best navigate through a time of social and political turmoil.
While it’s easy to frame responses to controversial administration actions in terms of politics, Micho Spring, chair of Weber Shandwick’s Global Corporate Practice, says companies should frame their responses in terms of principle instead.
“Any response that a company or executive makes relating to current events should be grounded in the values that a company provides to society, and should be used as an opportunity to communicate those values to employees and customers,” says Spring. “CEOs in particular are being seen more and more as builders of community among their employees and customers, and consumers are increasingly expecting executives to speak out on hot-button issues.”
However, Spring warns that companies “should only respond and take a public stance when its values are directly related.” But if they are, Spring says that companies should act fast, noting that an upcoming research report from Weber Shandwick found that 85% of global consumers say how a company responds to issues and crises is an important factor in their opinion of the organization overall. “Companies and executives need to be prepared to respond quickly to issues that are jeopardizing their values. Consumers put a lot of weight into a company’s responsiveness, particularly in times of crisis.”
Of course, it’s not just customers that companies need to worry about. The future success of a company is intertwined with how well it is viewed by its employees, says Bradley Tubb, associate director at communications agency Battenhall. Companies must consider the impact that controversial policies might have on their employees. “Companies have a responsibility to protect their workers, and there is also an expectation that they will look out for their customers. This is where Uber CEO Travis Kalanick recently came unstuck, by failing to speak out against the ‘Muslim ban’ quickly enough. Clearly, there is an expectation that brands stick to their values and speak out against the administration if those values are seen to be under threat.”
Spring agrees: “Protecting a company’s image in the eyes of employees is equally important, if not more so, in today’s environment of employee activism and engagement. They are the prism for a company’s credibility among all stakeholders,” she says.
“Employees increasingly want to work for values-driven organizations. Recent events, and especially those of this past week, show that employees want their companies to stand on principle. They expect company values to be communicated clearly to the outside world and acted upon. Culture has become central to the ability of an organization to attract and retain employees and customers. Companies that are seen as being on the wrong side of social issues today run the risk more than ever of losing the war for talent and facing significant consumer backlash. Particularly in today’s environment, companies must put culture and values at the center of their risk mitigation strategies.”
As the first two weeks of Trump’s administration shows, change can happen quickly. That’s why it’s important for companies to think ahead and have plans in place for any potential risks that could arise from further executive orders that can be enacted with the stroke of a pen, says Don Baer, worldwide chair and CEO of Burson-Marsteller.
“Get ahead of the curve, if you can,” says Baer. “We are living in what feels like an especially unpredictable and contentious time. Smart companies are not only preparing, they are working to get better intelligence about the small cadre of advisers and stakeholders providing counsel to or influencing key political and policy leaders, and they are finding ways to reach them, directly or through various communication channels, often with an assist from firms like ours.”
Baer recommends conducting a risk assessment to understand your company’s vulnerabilities and opportunities associated with taking a position, and says that if a government action is a direct challenge to what you do or presents a major ethical challenge for your customers, employees, suppliers, or other stakeholders, then you will more likely want to comment. However, if the action is not an affront to your company’s values or those of its key audiences, then it will less likely require a response.
“Early interaction combined with accurate and effective messages and smart uses of various communications channels can often diffuse a situation before it becomes a problem,” says Baer.
There’s little doubt Trump’s Twitter prowess helped him win the election. What’s surprised many is that he has decided not to give up his personal Twitter handle while president. Instead, he tweets just as regularly and openly as he did before he took office. And it’s the power of Trump’s tweets that companies need to be conscious of, says Rob Flaherty, partner, chairman, and CEO of Ketchum.
“President Trump’s use of Twitter creates a series of unprecedented dynamics and challenges for companies,” says Flaherty. “As an outsider and avowed disruptor, President Trump reacts instantaneously to breaking news. He has taken on big companies, CEOs, Republicans, Democrats, allies, and enemies, and he may also praise and compliment some of those players. An endorsement can be a double-edged sword, so companies have to be constantly monitoring for mentions.”
One such double-edged sword was the tweet Trump posted a little more than a week before assuming office. In it, he praised L.L. Bean after board member Linda Bean spoke out in support of Trump on television.
Before the tweet, L.L. Bean had been added to a boycott list of businesses that contributed to Trump’s campaign or sells Trump-branded products. Hence, Trump decided to tweet his support of the company. Unfortunately, Trump’s favorable tweet urging people to buy from the company likely only further polarized its potential customers.
For this reason, Flaherty says companies should consider out the various policy events that could occur in the next year and prepare background information and a position on each of them. “This will be important to put the company in a position to react fast,” he says. “The longer the gap between a critical tweet by the president and a company response, the greater the risk of damage to reputation and stock price.”
As for the tone of the response, Flaherty notes that every situation is different, but companies should be careful not to get defensive. “Also, tweeting factual information is better than tweeting at the president and including his Twitter handle,” he says. “If you strike back too negatively, you may be escalating the news value of the moment and extending your time in the spotlight.”