The Rise of Trump: Lessons for Corporate Communications

To the surprise of most, Donald Trump has been elected the 45th President of the United States.

What this means for the United States and the global business community is not yet clear. During the lengthy campaign, President-elect Trump adopted numerous vague and at-times contradictory policy positions.

As one senior editor put it to us immediately after the vote: “He is a 100 percent unknown commodity. He’s thrown so many things out without any substance that you don’t know what to believe or follow.”

While Trump will begin his term of office with Republicans in control of both the House and Senate, it is unclear if his views and policy proposals align with those of the Republican Party establishment.

As strategic corporate communications professionals, we believe there are some notable lessons to be learned and issues to watch for companies as they interact with investors, employees, media and other constituents.

What business media think

Reporters and editors are scrambling to write stories that preview a Trump presidency. Moreover, media outlets overall are taking a long hard look at how to direct news coverage in light of the perceived failures of the political press in 2016. We asked top business editors and reporters how this election and Trump’s victory will shape their approach to business reporting moving forward.

Again, uncertainty abounds. One editor admitted that it will likely be a while before it is clear what impact a Trump presidency will have on the markets and on how business media go about their jobs.

We did also hear that there will be a fair amount of introspection among the press. Simply put, “how did the media miss the story?” The criticism of the media throughout the election has made many reporters – and not just in the political press – closely consider how they go about their job. One business editor commented that the dogged reporting of the Washington Post regarding Trump’s charitable giving is a “teachable moment for everyone.” We expect this introspection to lead to an increased push for more investigative reporting and efforts to break significant business news.

From a thematic standpoint, there is an increased desire among business media to explore topics such as protectionism and cross-border M&A, anti-trust regulation, U.S.-China relations, the future of international trade and political treaties and arrangements, and Wall Street’s influence in Washington, D.C. Corporate leaders would be well served to consider how their organizations intersect with these themes, what risk this may pose and how their corporate stories are being told.

Companies are not candidates

One understandable consequence of the election results is that some companies may conclude that they should adopt Mr. Trump’s unconventional communications tactics now that these tactics have seemingly been proven successful.

We think this is the wrong conclusion.

Both President-elect Trump and his opponent Secretary Hillary Clinton used Twitter and other social media platforms to astounding effect, broadcasted events directly to constituents via Facebook and often bypassed the traditional press. It is all indicative of a communications dynamic that is increasingly direct and unfiltered by traditional media.

Corporate leaders should remember that companies are not candidates. Direct communication and new platforms can be effective, but companies should be wary of mimicking the sharp-tongued, pugnacious style of U.S. political candidates. Expectations for companies remain focused on accountability and responsibility – to investors, employees, customers and other constituents.
Traditional media continues to play a central role in how these groups understand and support business in the United States. Direct communication and new platforms with a well-crafted message are impactful, but should not replace the need to maintain traditional media relationships.

Direct relationships are paramount

What companies can productively learn from, however, is not how the Trump campaign spoke to constituents, but how it learned from them. For weeks, the Trump campaign insisted it was going to win based on what it was hearing and seeing on the ground. Many dismissed this as a byproduct of Mr. Trump’s trademark self-confidence, pointing instead to the polling data that consistently showed Secretary Clinton in the lead.

As we all know, the polling data were wrong and the Trump/Pence yard signs were right.

For us, this dichotomy proves one of our central tenets – direct relationships with key constituents are vital for companies. Eyes and ears on the ground supersede top-down research and data.

Companies would do well to heed this lesson. The strength of their local relationships will go a long way to shaping their reputations and their success in executing their strategies – not only locally but also on a national and global scale. This is particularly true in an age when local constituents have the ability to amplify their points of view quickly and broadly via multiple social media platforms. The simple and growing reality is that a poorly managed communication of a difficult corporate decision can have sweeping and rapid impact on a company’s overall public perception.

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