How PR pros can prepare for a ‘Trump crisis’

The president-elect has attacked several organizations in speeches and through tweets (most recently, CNN), causing brand managers to scramble for responses. Here’s how to mount a defense.

Image by Ninian Reid via / CC BY 2.0

Organizations face all kinds of crises, but it has been a while since brand reps have had to add a new category to the list.

In addition to financial, technological and natural crises, crises of deception, workplace violence, self-inflicted crises and crises of malevolence, organizations now must contend with the Trump crisis.

Crisis experts are already talking about the Trump crisis, which companies face when the president-elect takes aim at an organization, usually through a tweet.

Some contend that speed matters. Golin Corporate Communications President Scott Farrell told The New York Times: “The only thing that applies, no matter what the issue, is speed. Slow kills companies fast in a Twitter conversation.”

Still, some companies have opted for more circumspect responses.

An attack on a business by the leader of the free world is uncharted territory, and coming from Trump makes it worse than if it had come from, say, Barack Obama, Ronald Reagan, Harry Truman or Woodrow Wilson. Trump has an army of trolls poised to attack companies that Trump targets or that articulate anything that could be construed as opposition to his agenda. The consequences can range from a hit to share price to a flurry of fake news stories and calls for boycotts.

Trump’s motives for leveling attacks on organizations are anybody’s guess. Some suggest that he goes after organizations against which he harbors a grudge. His tweet taking on Boeing came a mere 20 minutes after Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg mildly criticized the president elect’s China rhetoric.

One writer wonders whether someone might be profiting on Trump’s attacks mere moments before he launches one, noting that a rant aimed at Lockheed Martin came only six minutes after someone dumped shares resulting in a 4 percent drop in its stock, erasing $4 billion in value.

(Who wouldn’t love to be a fly on the wall of the Securities and Exchange Commission right about now?) Still others assume Trump has longstanding grudges against some of the companies that have been targets of his wrath.

Wreaking havoc

Motives aside, however, Trump’s attacks can have severe consequences. Lockheed Martin, for example, recovered only half of its losses by the end of trading on the day of the tweet. Reuters crafted some charts that show how share prices performed in the wake of Trump’s tweets.

(So far, more have performed well than have lost value. Toyota and Lockheed Martin failed to recover losses while General Motors, Boeing, Rexnord, United Technologies, and Ford all ended the day in positive territory.)

A sampling of organizations’ responses to Trump criticism:

  • H&R Block. At the outset of his campaign in August 2015, Trump said he hoped to put “put H&R Block out of business” with a simpler tax code. Rather than respond immediately, the company considered its options, then launched the most expensive advertising campaign in its history, including its first-ever use of a celebrity spokesperson (actor Jon Hamm). CEO Bill Cobb sais, “The tax code was pretty simple in 1955, yet people have always come here for help.”
  • Toyota. Trump’s attack on Toyota for the plant planned to build in Mexico seems particularly off-base, given that Toyota is a Japanese company, not an American one. Toyota handled the criticism deftly, ignoring the tariff threat and pointing out through multiple channels (including Twitter) that the company is heavily invested in U.S. manufacturing and exports a lot of American-built cars to 40 countries while its U.S. imports from Mexico are the smallest in the industry. “Toyota looks forward to collaborating with the Trump Administration to serve in the best interests of consumers and the automotive industry,” Toyota said in a media statement. Trump’s Toyota attack prompted responses from Japan’s chief government spokesman and its finance minister.
  • Boeing. Several hours after Trump’s criticism, Boeing issued a statement on its media site that subtly corrected Trump’s misinformation about the amount of the aircraft company’s contract for a new Air Force One. Trump claimed it was “more than $4 billion” and called for its cancellation. Boeing responded, “We are currently under contract for $170 million to help determine the capabilities of these complex military aircraft that serve the unique requirements of the president of the United States. We look forward to working with the U.S. Air Force on subsequent phases of the program allowing us to deliver the best planes for the president at the best value for the American taxpayer.”
  • General Motors. GM issued a statement in response to Trump’s tariff import tax threat over a Chevy Cruze that would be manufactured in Mexico: “General Motors manufacturers the Chevrolet Cruze sedan in Lordstown, Ohio. All Chevrolet Cruze sedans sold in the U.S. are built in GM’s assembly plant in Lordstown, Ohio. GM builds the Chevrolet Cruze hatchback for global markets in Mexico, with a small number sold in the U.S.”
  • Ford Motor Co. Ford has been a Trump target over its planned manufacturing facility in Mexico for some time. CEO Mark Fields responded in interviews (like this one), but the company had a team standing by during the presidential debates. The team included representatives of the UAW. Within minutes of Trump’s mention of the plant, the company was ready with its tweet, followed closely by the UAW’s supporting tweet.
  • Vanity Fair. After the 33-year-old magazine published a blistering review of a restaurant in one of Trump’s hotels, the president-elect tweeted that the publication was “dead.” The magazine responded in multiple venues calling itself “The Magazine Donald Trump Doesn’t Want You to Read.” Its call for new subscribers resulted in 40,000 new paying readers. Golin’s Farrell cited the speed with which Vanity Fair responded as an example of what other companies should do in his New York Times interview.
  • Rexnord. An Indiana manufacturer that Trump targeted for its plans to move manufacturing to Mexico didn’t respond at all.
  • Chuck Jones. The president of the United Steelworkers 1999, which represents Carrier workers, was targeted by Trump after he claimed the president-elect had lied about the terms of an agreement to save jobs slated to move from Indiana to Mexico. “Chuck Jones…has done a terrible job representing workers,” Trump tweeted. “No wonder companies flee country!” Jones defended himself in interviews and was supported by tweets from people like New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten. But Jones told NBC News he was now the target of threats from Trump supporters.
  • United Nations. Trump took aim at the UN after its vote to sanction Israel for its settlements.

The UN’s subtweet was deft and effective and could serve as a template for a lot of companies that may find themselves in Trump’s crosshairs:

Just this week, CNN bore the brunt of a Trump tirade.

How can you respond?

If these examples demonstrate anything, it’s that there is no one-size-fits-all approach and that speed on Twitter is not necessarily a defining characteristic of a successful response.

What should companies do?

Knowing that few organizations are safe from a possible Trump disparagement, PR and crisis teams should add the possibility to their crisis planning. Ketchum’s Stephen Waddington (a former chair of the U.K.’s Chartered Institute of Public Relations) has drafted a PR framework for tackling fake news that also serves as a guide to managing Trump attacks.


1. Monitor. The first step is to monitor Trump’s communications carefully. The iOS app Trigger—a kind of If This Then That for financial information—has introduced a “Trump trigger” that “gives you the ability to trade stock based off Trump’s tweets about public companies.” The app notifies users in real time when Trump tweets about a publicly traded stock. Though the app is meant for investors, it could be a useful alert resource for communicators, too. Adding Trump to your monitoring is essential, though. Even South Korea has done it, according to Newsweek.

2. Know your vulnerabilities. Organizations should assess the elements of their operations, top to bottom, that could be fodder for Trump’s ire. Offshore manufacturing is at the top of the list, but companies would be well served by creating an index of all the president-elect’s hot-button issues and correlating them to company activities.

3. Get your narrative straight. Companies should have well-crafted narratives already. Based on the vulnerabilities identified in the step above, extract and enhance the parts of the narrative that tell your story clearly and effectively. For each possible target, prepare talking points. Toyota’s listing of its investments in the U.S. is a good model.

4. Prepare your crisis team. Having as itchy a trigger finger on Twitter as Trump does is not a strategy. Your crisis team should be ready at a moment’s notice to assess the nature of the criticism and its potential impact, and then determine the appropriate course of action. If an immediate tweet (and other responses) are warranted, they should have the mechanisms in place to ensure they’re approved quickly, but longer-term responses should also be considered. (Remember, H&R Block took months to develop an ad campaign.)

5. Use paid social media. Waddington writes, “Paid media provides the means to directly counter fake news in networks. Investment in paid search and promotion on social media sites can go a long way to countering an attack. Have the skills and budget in place for paid planning and targeting.” I couldn’t possibly say it any better when advising the same for Trump attacks.

6. Work behind the scenes. A Wall Street Journal post points out that Boeing’s Muilenberg spoke directly with Trump in addition to releasing its statement. “Quickly establishing an open line of communication with the president-elect’s team could provide clarity for how best to respond,” writes Alex Conant, a partner at Firehouse Strategies, a Republican public affairs firm.


7. Avoid snark. Organizations and their social media managers may be inclined to respond with ridicule or satire, but that’s usually best resisted. Mars Inc. earned great reviews for its response to a reference by Donald Trump Jr., when he compared the Syrian refugee crisis to a bowl of Skittles, three of which were poisoned. “Skittles are candy; refugees are people,” Mars tweeted. “We respectfully refrain from further comment, as that could be misinterpreted as marketing.”

Some organizations might want to be more provocative, if not snarky. Stan Steinreich, CEO of Steinreich Communications Group, wrote in Fortune, “When the tweet says, ‘cancel the contract with Boeing,’ an appropriate response would be, ‘Mr. President, we honor our agreements…but happy to work with you on a resolution.’ When threatening a company who needs to move jobs out of the U.S. would that company be better to respond, ‘Talk…don’t balk. Mr. President, happy to discuss ways we can stay.'”

Of course, none of these organizations took this approach, and for the most part, they came through the crisis in reasonably good shape.

8. Use employee advocates carefully. Waddington advises organizations to unleash employee advocates to respond to fake news. When addressing Trump criticism and fake news, companies should be cautious about asking employees to weigh in. Most employees are wholly unprepared to become the target of trolls, which could easily happen if they join the fray.

Shel Holtz is the principal of Holtz Communication + Technology. A version of this article originally appeared on his blog.


COMMENT Daily Headlines

Sign up to receive the latest articles from directly in your inbox.