POTUS tweets: Nothing to 'frict' here

Updated March 19, 2017

Many experts and counselors have weighed in on how American companies and CEOs should handle the threat of a presidential tweet about jobs, investments, trade -- let's be honest, the list of potential tweet topics is endless.

This question has been much discussed in board rooms and by CEOs and chief communications officers, as it should. After all, this is the first time we've had a president that is the "activist in chief."

Various response strategies have been employed with varying degrees of success, reminding us that much of what we do as communicators is situational, requiring quick and informed judgments, and is more "art" than science. But in reviewing the communications of tweet targets to date, it seems one approach works better than others. 

The best way to anchor and enhance reputation and protect your license to operate in any country is to align your values with social needs and act upon them every day. In other words, companies exist to add value to peoples' lives inside and outside their office and factory walls and should be judged on whether they do or not. 

For communications professionals this means helping executives define and understand these values so it's easier for those in the organization to act on them. Externally, it means helping everyone, including presidents, understand who you are and how you behave -- an authentic purpose-driven "narrative" in communicator speak. 

The companies that have responded well did so with a sense of confidence and ease, in statements free of corporate language. When you know who you are, why you exist and are comfortable with it, these responses become much easier. An edgy "correct the record" attitude (which I have employed many times) seems counterproductive in this political environment -- although explaining the facts is a must. 

On the other hand, the "placate the president" approach doesn't seem to work as well. Don't get me wrong, American CEOs should consider their Washington and local political relationships when making decisions, particularly about their jobs. Elected officials can and will wreak havoc with your reputation if they feel you are betraying workers and constituents. Increasingly, Americans expect companies to put people ahead of money when making workforce decisions.

But the fear of a presidential criticism should never dominate CEO decision-making. Business leaders must make complex investment decisions based on things such as product demand, workforce capability, tax policy, regulation, and operating costs.

Plus, CEOs serve diverse groups of people -- employees, customers, investors, partners, communities, and "civil society," a fancy term that means people outside of government and business who work for the common good. CEOs' sense of nationalism exists and strongly in many cases, but it necessarily falls down the list of priorities when making complex decisions that could affect many stakeholders and determine whether their businesses survive. 

A quick aside for communicators whose CEOs have been asked to work on White House advisory councils. With the U.S. jobless rate at about 9 percent in 2011, GE CEO Jeff Immelt was asked by President Obama to lead a group of CEOs to suggest job-creating policies. Jeff weighed the request carefully, after all, he has a big company to run and with the country divided politically, he knew it would make GE a target for partisan attacks. When Jeff asked my advice, I told him "There's no good 'no' answer. When the presidents asks for help, you say 'yes.'"

Jeff already knew this before I said a word. Plus, GE had a long legacy of helping presidents going back and serving the country is consistent with Jeff's and GE's values. Jeff led a vigorous process and the council produced many suggestions that were implemented. The reputation challenges came as expected from both ends of the political spectrum but most employees viewed Jeff's role favorably because he explained his decision in real time and in real terms.

Back to tweets. A friend of mine and I were discussing recently how to best stay the president's Twitter fingers and he said that a Trump tweet "is a missile looking for friction." His advice to clients: "don't give it anything to 'frict' on." That's a very smart way of saying your best missile defense is running your business the right way, being confident in who your are, and not doing stupid things to put yourself in the crosshairs.

I also like the advice of PR pro Lucas van Praag, who writes in PRWeek how to prepare for and respond when presidents attack, emphasizing the need to have a plan ahead of time, to monitor the Twittersphere vigilantly, and, of course, to act with speed. Lucas concludes:

"Be honest and straightforward. If you are at fault, apologize and do something about it. If you are targeted for something you didn’t do, present the facts in a compelling way. Finally, never lie. Politicians may have the dubious luxury of living in an 'alternative fact' world, but company executives do not."

Sage advice for this age of uncertainty -- or anytime.

Opinions expressed here are my own.