Last week, I received a request I've never gotten before in my career as a public-relations consultant: to counsel corporate executives on how to prepare in case the president of the United States comes after them on Twitter.
As Donald Trump begins his first business day in the Oval Office, many companies are hiring crisis communication firms and making plans for what to do if they become targets of his Twitter attacks.
As president-elect, Trump criticized numerous companies and brands, including General Motors, Lockheed Martin, Vanity Fair and Boeing. And he instigated, and arguably won, a public fight to keep the Carrier Corporation from moving some jobs overseas.
Boeing is building a brand new 747 Air Force One for future presidents, but costs are out of control, more than $4 billion. Cancel order!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 6, 2016
"We've all been put on notice," said Peter Duda, head of the global crisis and issues practice at the global communications firm Weber Shandwick. "If you're planning to do anything that doesn't align with the administration's policies and positions, be prepared for it to be high-profile, and be prepared to defend it."
Chris Nelson, crisis lead for the Americas at the global corporate communications firm Fleishman Hillard, said Trump's tweets represent a form of political pressure.
While companies have long faced criticism from activists, only now do they face the prospect of sharp, direct attacks from the highest office in the land.
"We've never had a person with so much political power be so willing to single out corporate actors on a regular basis," Nelson said. "He can deliver a lot more pressure in one tweet than any activist or advocacy group can in a whole campaign."
Has anyone looked at the really poor numbers of @VanityFair Magazine. Way down, big trouble, dead! Graydon Carter, no talent, will be out!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 15, 2016
The magnitude of the pressure Trump brings to bear can change companies' calculus, making them decide it's not worth the reputational costs of standing by their previous decisions. "Companies that have faced the Trump tweet have made capital allocations based on that pressure," Nelson said.
"That kind of curb on corporate decisions has traditionally been left to regulators, not bold-faced political pressure from the president."
General Motors is sending Mexican made model of Chevy Cruze to U.S. car dealers-tax free across border. Make in U.S.A.or pay big border tax!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 3, 2017
Possibly in response to that pressure, corporations such as General Motors, Hyundai, Wal-Mart, Bayer, Amazon, Ford and Sprint have recently announced plans to create jobs in America.
Whether Trump influenced these decisions is a matter of controversy: NBC News reported that some of these announcements were previously planned, and companies were "recycling their old news to avoid being blasted in a Trump tweet." Unsurprisingly, Trump fired back at the media company, tweeting that NBC's report was "more FAKE NEWS." However, according to MarketWatch, Trump's allegation isn't grounded in evidence.
The U.S. Consumer Confidence Index for December surged nearly four points to 113.7, THE HIGHEST LEVEL IN MORE THAN 15 YEARS! Thanks Donald!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 28, 2016
Here's how companies should prepare for possible Twitter attacks by Trump:
Monitor statements and pro-Trump media
It may seem obvious, but it's a critical first step. Nelson recommends reviewing Trump's signature issues -- such as keeping jobs in America and limiting immigration -- and monitoring the administration's statements to build perspective on its policy priorities.
He also said it's important to keep an eye on pro-Trump media outlets.
"Understand when people in the Trump movement are talking about your organisation, because it may indicate where you're vulnerable," he said. For example, if a right-wing media outlet starts criticising a corporate policy, it could be a sign a Trump tweet will follow.
Review corporate policies
"When you respond to the president of the United States, you're not just delivering a message; you're announcing a corporate policy decision," Nelson said. "You must be ready to live by that statement moving forward."
That's why companies should review their operations, policies and procedures ahead of time, to determine if any touch on Trump's hot-button issues and potentially make the company a target.
Then they should decide whether they would defend themselves or change their policies if criticized. This requires bringing the management team together to agree on decisions so they're not made in haste while under fire.
For example, if a company plans to move a factory overseas but might face a Trump Twitter attack for doing so, is it worth accepting the greater cost of keeping the jobs in the US to avoid the reputational damage that would come from an attack by the president?
Prepare messages in advance
Harlan Loeb, global chair of the crisis and reputation risk practice at Edelman, the world's largest public relations firm, compared a Trump Twitter attack to a snap on Snapchat because --if a company handles it properly -- it's just a short blip on a screen.
The trick is being prepared to respond rapidly. Because the social-media conversation evolves so quickly, companies should write the actual responses they'll post -- and get all necessary internal approvals -- ahead of time, so they're ready to go if Trump attacks.
The best way to stave off attacks is to maintain good relationships in the first place.
Duda also recommended conducting practice drills. His firm created software called firebell that shows clients simulated but realistic social-media posts and press coverage they could face. So, for example, a company using the software could see a mock tweet from Trump and faux press coverage, then come up with a response and see simulated examples of how it might play in traditional and social media.
Line up allies
Nelson recommended having third parties who are willing to defend corporate policies at the ready. These may be customers, trade associations or community leaders in places where the company does business. It's important that these allies understand company decisions so they can be supportive.
Think about whether these validators would be willing to defend you "in the context of a Trump tweet," Nelson warned.
"As much as you may be really good friends in the dark, the minute the spotlight hits, your company may not find a lot of people willing to join you in that circle of attention."
Sometimes companies pay these third parties. As the New York Times reported, after Trump said he wanted to "put H&R Block out of business" in the early days of his campaign, the company began featuring a paid ally -- actor Jon Hamm -- in an ad telling clients to "get your taxes won."
Identify channels to the White House
Finally, it's worth trying to resolve disputes via non-public channels. Nelson said it's important to identify contacts such as advisers to the president or lobbyists who can reach the White House if a company needs to discuss an issue or try to provide accurate information to the president.
In public relations, of course, the best way to stave off attacks is to maintain good relationships in the first place.