The bad idea phone call

I don't know who Donald Trump has in mind to be his White House communications director. I do know, however, that there will come a time when the new president calls his communications leader to propose a really bad idea, such as deporting the White House turkey instead of pardoning it.

Okay, sorry to make a cheap political joke. I am not saying there is a high probability that Donald Trump will have bad ideas, such as Tweeting angrily about Broadway actors and television shows like a thin-skinned teenager. Actually, I am going to need to take a break here and do a calming chant to convince myself that we're all going to be okay: "Pins and needles, needles and pins, it's a happy man that grins."

Better now. What I am saying is that all presidents have bad ideas from time to time. So do CEOs, communicators, journalists, auto mechanics, priests, me, even my dog Charlie ("sniff, sniff, hey, maybe I should eat that piece of chewing gum stuck to the sidewalk...").

In business and government it is often the communicator who gets the first call to discuss an idea in all its badness. That's because these misguided brainstorms can arise from frustration with an article in the media, a half-baked idea served up in the executive lunch room, or when an executive's family has spent too much time on social media and thinks it's time to "set the record straight" with LaserBoy217. 

I worked as a communications counsel with two CEOs -- Jack Welch and Jeff Immelt -- who rarely let bad ideas reach their lips. Both have great instincts and judgment about reputation management so they usually knew the right answer before I said anything. They also have good senses of humor and easily laugh at themselves, which is very important to these discussions.

I was prompted to write about this somewhat narrow topic after watching the fascinating documentary, Our Nixon, which included one of the best bad idea phone calls in political history. On April 30, 1973, President Richard Nixon, gave a nationally televised speech to announce he had accepted the resignations of his top aides over the Watergate coverup. After the speech, Nixon, deep in a paranoid funk, telephoned Chief of Staff H.R. "Bob" Haldeman -- one of the aides who had resigned -- to ask him to call a few allies to see how the speech was being received:

Nixon: I don't know whether you can call and get me any reactions and call me back. Like the old style. Would you mind?

Haldeman: I don't think I can. I don't...

Nixon: No, I agree.

Haldeman: I'm in kind of an odd spot to do that...

Nixon: No, don't call a goddamned soul. The hell with it.

Listening to this call made me cringe for both men and reminded me of similar calls I have been on:

Well, you could do that Gary if you want to ruin your reputation.
  • A government official asked his staff (including me) to offer waste tires piled up in dozens of dumps to professional rodeos for their use (Me: "I don't know how many rodeos there are but we're talking about millions of tires").
  • Many communicators have gotten this request: To find out who is leaking information to the news media, let's plant fake news with a member of the team and see if he/she will leak it to a reporter (Me: "What happens when the fake news ends up in the media?").
  • I once asked a communicator friend if I should issue a whiny statement in my name about a reporter who won a journalism prize for a misleading article about my company. (Friend: "Well you could do that Gary if you want to ruin your reputation."). 

These are difficult calls to handle, particularly for someone who is new in a job or who has a new boss. So here is my advice for communicators when you get this call:

  • Understand the relationship. Why did the executive call you? What does he/she expect from you -- just a shoulder to cry on or the truth? It is important to know which leaders do not want pushback because a "you're wrong" approach won't work. 
  • In all cases, listen carefully at first. Let the executive walk through the idea completely. Don't try to fill the silence. Ask for details on how the idea will work. "Walk me through that," is a good response.
  • Ask basic questions: "What is our goal in doing this?" "What will success look like?" "Who will be involved?"
  • Then go deeper: "Aren't you concerned about how our employees will react?" "Is this what we want to spend our reputational capital on?" "Have you talked to [insert trusted advisor or board member here]?" "How would we explain this to investors?"
  • Express your opinion, don't wait. Bad ideas can gain momentum quickly, particularly on communications issues. To back up your opinion, Provide data ("this issue really is going nowhere on social media") or illustrative examples of how others have faced into a similar situation ("XYZ Company tried this and it didn't work"). If you don't have them off the top of your head, get them ASAP. 
  • Call on an outside counselor. Ask an outside counselor to provide an opinion through you or directly to the executive. Sometimes an outside voice can made a difference. 

This may seem straightforward because it usually is. It takes courage and expertise, however, to have an opinion, voice it and then be prepared to deal with the fallout should an executive move ahead with a bad idea. And oh, remember to take a deep breath and say, "Pins and needles, needles and pins..."