Yikes! Most CEOs aren’t prepared for Trump’s guerrilla-style attacks

Donald Trump
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Donald Trump

Donald Trump has shown every sign that he will lead as president the way he campaigned — by picking fights on Twitter and in the media. Specifically, he will likely continue to single out specific businesses and institutions — and their leaders — as he has done in recent days with Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Carrier, Chuck Jones of United Steelworkers 1999, and drug companies.

Trump's unilateral cancellation via Twitter of Boeing's $4 billion contract to build new Air Force Ones (Tweet: "Cancel order!") was especially potent because its caprice bypassed a long and complex system for the awarding of contracts. Such an action, if it comes to pass, will have a huge impact on Boeing's business. And even if the contract remains, Boeing has been thrown into turmoil.

I have been hearing the sound of teeth-gnashing from corner offices across the republic because Trump's policy-by-tantrum style presents a crisis for businesses that find themselves in his crosshairs for a simple reason: Big companies hate to be anywhere near controversy. They prefer to duck and work things out behind the scenes. (Trump doesn't do anything behind the scenes). This is because it is well understood — but never acknowledged — that whoever is called front and center to defend their companies in times of controversy is likely to lose their job. Think JetBlue's David Neeleman, BP's Tony Hayward, Target's Gregg Steinhafel and Wells Fargo's John Stumpf.

Trump's antics are effective because they put corporations in a conundrum they've never faced before: Do they defend themselves vigorously and risk angering the president? Do they capitulate and change a business practice to get the heat off? Or, do they stay quiet and hope the storm passes?

"One corporate honcho half-jokingly said to me recently, 'Should I get my CEO to go on TV to flatter Trump in the hope that he cuts us a break?' The question isn’t crazy."

Complicating matters is how Trump decides which businesses and leaders are naughty or nice: He chooses his targets in part by who and what he sees on TV and what's said about him.

Corporate America has no model for dealing with guerrilla-style attacks from the leader of the free world. Businesses make and sell stuff; they are not qualified to be contestants in reality TV.

There are a few things corporations need to consider as they puzzle through the Trump phenomenon.

One corporate honcho half-jokingly said to me recently, "Should I get my CEO to go on TV to flatter Trump in the hope that he cuts us a break?" The question isn't crazy. It's worth noting that Boeing is contributing $1 million to Trump's inauguration (as it has in past inaugurations) despite the president-elect's attack on its contract. Not exactly coming out swinging, is it? But then again, Boeing has lots of business with the government so capitulation may be the better of their bad options.

Nevertheless, under the Trump regime, companies need to revisit their time-tested approach of media avoidance. After all, in Trump's eyes, you're not a player if you're not on TV.

Which brings us to the issue of fighting back. Former journalists who have come to work for my crisis-management firm are stunned when they realize that some of the largest companies in the world often don't even have one person who is ready and willing to go on TV and defend their company. Given how high the stakes have become, however, companies now have no choice but to prepare themselves for a reality TV landscape where one presidential sucker-punch can wipe out billions of dollars of wealth in seconds — which is exactly what happened last week when Trump said he planned to go after drug companies over pricing.

However, companies probably shouldn't overrespond because it's only a matter of time (perhaps a few minutes) until Trump decides to vaporize another target. Accordingly, the best response would probably be proportional and medium to medium (TV to TV).

Companies need to triage how and whether to respond to a Trump attack. Perhaps the biggest variable is whether there is likely to be a business impact as there surely will be if Trump cancels Boeing's contract or if he seeks to regulate drug pricing. If the decision is made to fight back, the next question is who does it? The CEO? It's not always wise to ratchet PR battles right to the corner office. In fact, companies like Goldman Sachs have made effective use of other executives who are simply good at doing media combat. Then there are surrogates — rank-and-file employees or issue experts that may be harder to demonize than the head honcho. As a touchstone, in this election cycle, Kellyanne Conway established the gold standard for surrogate performance.

The media, historically, hasn't had much affection for big businesses and institutions but many journalists are beginning to view Trump's tactics as a slippery slope of unrestrained bullying and might be more willing to give companies a hearing than in the past.

One thing is for certain: Corporations are going to have to expand their communications bag-of-tricks if they're going to survive in this brave, new Trump world.

Commentary by Eric Dezenhall, CEO of Dezenhall Resources, a crisis-management firm in Washington, DC. He is also the author of "Glass Jaw: A Manifesto for Defending Fragile Reputations in an Age of Instant Scandal." Follow him on Twitter @EricDezenhall.

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