From product recalls to unwieldy CEOs, public relations experts have seen it all. At least, they thought they had.
Then the U.S. elected a president who tweets whatever is on his mind: bashing auto makers like General Motors for manufacturing cars in Mexico, declaring companies like the New York Times to be “failing,” criticizing Nordstrom for dropping his daughter’s fashion label, and complaining about the cost of Boeing’s 747 Air Force One.
As President Donald Trump calls out specific corporations, not only is he fueling an unprecedented amount of anxiety among executives, he also is creating an influx of business for public relations agencies.
“This is the first situation like this we’ve ever seen,” said Gene Grabowski, who has spent over two decades in Washington, D.C.-focused PR and advocacy roles and is now a partner at crisis communications firm KGlobal. Clients typically ask for advice on how to be prepared to handle plausible scenarios like a plant fire, huge product recall or malfeasance by a board member, he said.
“This is the first time clients reached out asking, ‘What do we do if the president attacks us?’ This is now a category,” said Mr. Grabowski.
“Attack by the President” is now among the scenarios that the firm jots down on a whiteboard during routine crisis and issues management exercises for clients. The purpose is to discover what’s most likely to happen, how likely it is to happen and then how to react, said Mr. Grabowski. His firm has had discussions with at least three clients about developing a “Trump strategy.”
In Mr. Trump’s first six weeks in office, companies have been confronted with how to respond to his public outrage that they would move U.S. jobs or operations outside the country. Mr. Trump campaigned heavily on promises to put Americans back to work, and since his election, he has been vocal about efforts to work with individual companies to retain jobs and create new ones.
Executives have also been put in the tedious position of figuring out how to react to polarizing policy changes like immigration.
Corporations have put out carefully worded responses and, in some cases, made actual changes to their business plans—sometimes even allowing Mr. Trump to claim credit for influencing those decisions.
Behind the scenes, most of these interactions are carefully managed by public relations experts. As more of these fast-moving scenarios play out in public and executives fear a 140-character tweet will send their stock price tumbling, more companies are paying up to be prepared for the worst.
After a handful of clients reached out for help, Zeno Group, a PR agency within the Daniel J. Edelman network, recast its crisis and issues resources to create a formal approach that uses insights from both the U.S. administration change and Brexit, said Kim Metcalfe, executive vice president of corporate affairs at Zeno. The new offering, dubbed Zeno Seismic, focuses on “how companies should deal with massive unexpected business and societal changes,” she said. At least six clients have reached out for help over the past few weeks.
Seeing “the correlation between a tweet and a stock price, it’s enough for them to realize they need to pay attention,” she said.
It’s also getting tough for PR professionals to do their bread-and-butter work of getting publicity for their clients’ product launches and other developments. National media outlets are spending more time covering Trump’s administration, and people are increasingly getting their news from outlets that cater to their views, Ms. Metcalfe said.
Peter Duda, executive vice president and co-lead of the global issues and crisis practice at Weber Shandwick, said that his shop has seen an uptick in demand from clients who want crisis preparedness plans that address a “new, more highly politicized environment.” Managing reputations and brand equity is taking up more of the firm’s time since the election, he said.
For example, Weber Shandwick was recently contacted by a “U.S. multinational financial services company that wants our help to protect its brand and corporate reputation in Mexico, given the anti-American sentiment that’s growing due to the administration’s proposed policies,” Mr. Duda said. The work will include a simulation drill for the management team that will offer up a fictitious crisis — a piece of information that quickly spreads to the news media, for example—and provide a forum for discussing the various ways they can respond or “manage the repercussions of inaction.”
Another PR agency executive said his team advised the CEO of a large technology client to publicly avoid speaking about “things that could draw the ire of the new environment in Washington,” such as immigration policy. If the CEO is asked publicly about what’s happening in Washington, the client is being advised to “keep to things about the business, and business in the new environment,” this executive said.
In the last two months, half a dozen clients have reached out asking for help in evaluating whether they have “vulnerabilities” that might make them a target or in dealing with actual crises related to the Trump administration, said Don Baer, CEO of Burson-Marsteller. That is an unusual amount of activity, he said.
Even companies who likely “would never be targeted” by President Trump, including some Fortune 300 clients, are asking for support, said Kris Balderston, president of global public affairs at FleishmanHillard. The president “doesn’t know they exist, but everyone is kind of afraid.”
To get in front of any potential dust-up, Mr. Grabowski said his firm is also helping clients with preventive measures, like proactively sending factsheets to Congressmen with information about clients’ contributions to jobs, taxes and charities in their districts.
“Managing Donald Trump is like managing a boss,” he said. “Don’t become a target. Never pick a fight.”