By Kara Alaimo
Preparing for and responding to new challenges that emerged since the 2016 presidential election is a big challenge. Many of the same forces that were first faced by political candidates – such as fake news, Twitter attacks by President Trump, and extreme polarization – are now starting to affect businesses and other organizations. I’ve been counseling practitioners on how to address these threats.
One new risk that is especially concerning to communicators is fake news. According to Buzzfeed, the 20 fake news stories that generated the most engagement during the election – measured by Facebook shares, comments and reactions – garnered more attention than the top 20 stories produced by actual news organizations. Now, the phenomenon is starting to impact businesses. For example, websites inaccurately claimed that Pepsi’s chief executive told Trump supporters to “take their business elsewhere” and that Chobani’s founder “vows to choke U.S. with Muslims.” In a recent column for Bloomberg View, I explain how businesses should prepare for and respond to the threat.
For example, Leslie Gaines-Ross, Weber Shandwick’s chief reputation strategist, advises clients to communicate their values in advance so they have a clear record to point to if they’re attacked. She also recommends using employees as advocates, because they’re often quick to jump to the defense of their organizations when they’re under fire and less senior staffers are perceived as more credible than top executives.
Although I never thought that I would advise organizations to sue the media, when it comes to fake news, lawsuits may be the best – and only – recourse we have. Mark MacDougall, a former federal prosecutor and Washington-based partner in the law firm Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, says that “civil discovery, sworn depositions, and the prospect of a public trial offer the only effective mechanism to put these people under oath, find out who is funding them, and whose interests they are serving.”
Another threat that has public relations practitioners rattled is the possibility that President Trump will denounce their organizations on social media. The president has proven willing to take to Twitter to publicly call out companies that draw his ire – from Boeing to General Motors to Lockheed Martin. Many companies fear that they could be next.
In another column for Bloomberg View, I discuss how to prepare for such an attack.
Chris Nelson, crisis lead for the Americas at the global corporate communications firm FleishmanHillard, says its critical to monitor the statements of the Trump administration and websites of his core supporters to identify the issues on their agenda which may leave organizations vulnerable. For example, the president and his supporters have shown a willingness to attack businesses that move jobs overseas or hire refugees.
Next, Nelson says, companies should decide how they’ll respond if they’re called out by Trump on Twitter. In some cases, it will make sense for organizations to stand their ground and defend themselves, but in other cases the reputational costs of disagreeing with the president may be too great, and companies may decide to change their policies. The time to make such tough decisions is before the president begins tweeting, so that if a company is attacked, it can respond rapidly.
Companies should draft and come to internal consensus on their actual responses in advance of a presidential attack, so that they’re ready to go if the president strikes. If they wait too long to respond, they risk allowing others to frame the situation.
Finally, many practitioners are grappling with questions about whether and when to weigh in on the controversial political issues now on the national agenda. For example, when will taking stances on policies such as the administration’s immigration ban or selling or discontinuing a Trump brand benefit a company’s reputation and when will all the backlash from Trump supporters not be worth it? We’ve seen a ton of companies – such as Uber, Under Armour, L.L. Bean, and Starbucks – up against these questions. And as companies such as Nordstrom’s have recently learned, organizations face potential boycotts for both supporting and disavowing the president and Trump brands.
In an additional column for Bloomberg View, I explain how to make such decisions.
Businesses should consider whether an issue is relevant to their core business, is in line with their clearly stated values, or affects people who are important to them, such as employees and board members. They should also consider whether key stakeholders expect them to take stances on issues. If the answer to any of these questions is yes, it often makes sense to weigh in.
If not, it often makes sense to stay out of the fray.
Gaines-Ross says that “our research shows that consumers do not immediately understand why a CEO would be speaking up on an issue that isn’t directly relevant to what their core business is all about.” Therefore, “at first glance, people think that CEOs are just trying to get media attention or sell products. The tie to the business has to be upfront, clear and values-driven for the average person to discern why a company would weigh in on such a hot-button issue.”
Another mistake businesses can make is reacting too quickly if they’re attacked on political grounds.
Helio Fred Garcia, president of the Logos Consulting Group, says businesses should only respond if criticism starts to gain traction among people who matter to them, such as customers. “Don’t go to DEFCON 1 just because your son-in-law saw a negative tweet,” he says. “Often an issue doesn’t gain traction unless you provide it. Most harm to corporate reputation and trust and confidence in a crisis is self-inflicted.”
Kara Alaimo, Ph.D. is Assistant Professor of Public Relations at Hofstra University and author of “Pitch, Tweet, or Engage on the Street: How to Practice Global Public Relations and Strategic Communication.” She served as Spokesperson for International Affairs in the Treasury Department during the Obama administration. For more information, visit www.karaalaimo.com and follow her Twitter handle, @karaalaimo
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