So you’re a CEO, and you’re seeing that a big part of the “new normal” of the Trump administration will be the president-elect’s penchant for personally calling out individual companies, often by surprise. Just look at his recent attacks on Carrier and Ford (F) for wanting to move jobs to Mexico, or Boeing for its “out of control” costs.
Almost overnight, handling such attacks from the “tweeter-in-chief” has become a basic skill every CEO must master. Here are five essential rules to managing a public ambush from President-elect Donald Trump:
- Prepare now
Presume the question is not if your company will be attacked, but when. Look at your business through the prism of Trump’s campaign promises and identify the issues he would likely challenge. If you’re about to shutter a plant or do a tax inversion deal, assume an attack will come sooner than later. And if much of your business relies on government contracts or a consumer base that includes Trump supporters, then assume you’re on the list, as well.
Once you’ve identified your vulnerabilities, then game out your responses. Agree with your team on a tight process that will enable a speedy reaction. Put that plan in your top right drawer, and be ready to pull it out as soon as the tweet hits the street.
- Assume there must be a symbolic victory for Trump
This is the single most important requirement for defusing the attack.
Fortunately, it’s a relatively easy requirement to fulfill. One of Trump’s greatest talents is to declare success with only the scarcest of facts to back up the claimed triumph. So find a way to manufacture those facts for him.
Carrier only kept 1,100 jobs in Indiana, but that was enough. Ford is still moving its Escort production to Mexico, but was able to claim it was replacing those jobs with others for no net loss. At some point, Trump will announce that Boeing was able to deliver the new Air Force One for much less than $4 billion.
The key is to deliver a tidy story quickly, because once Trump has extracted a “victory,” you will see him quickly move on to the next target.
- Simultaneously embrace and clarify
When attacked, your initial instinct will be to argue back, particularly when you know the accusation is false or unfair. But the wise CEO will quickly embrace the accusation as an opportunity to enhance the company’s reputation, not just survive the attack.
“We are currently under contract for $170 million to help determine the capabilities of these complex military aircraft that serve the unique requirements of the President of the United States.”
That sentence set the facts straight, not so much for the average citizen, but for investors who feared the loss of a $4 billion contract. That quick clarification of the true liability, backed by an additional statement from the White House, sent the stock back up within hours.
The second sentence was designed to avoid becoming a hard target by instead embracing Trump’s espoused motive.
“We look forward to working with the U.S. Air Force on subsequent phases of the program allowing us to deliver the best planes for the President at the best value for the American taxpayer.”
That may seem like an obvious statement to make, but the reality is that it required tremendous emotional discipline not to retort: “Listen, pal, do you know how little profit we make on this one-of-a-kind aircraft, and how many people are employed making it? Ya wanna take the contract to Airbus?”
Such a retort might feel gratifying in the moment, but will only keep the fight going and intensify the media coverage.
Instead, you have to park your ego and resist. Any hint of such pique undermines your ability to make yourself a partner in Trump’s victory.
- Make clinical business trade-offs
Your concessions may take you slightly off of the five-year business plan, but be sure to keep the actual business implications in perspective. The two big liabilities you must assess are your dependence on government contracts and your vulnerability to consumer backlash.
For a company like United Technologies with a $90 billion market cap, what does not shipping 1,100 Carrier jobs to Mexico mean in the grand scheme? The word in Spanish is “nada.”
Compare that impact with the effect of a potential consumer boycott of Carrier products. Evaluated through clinical eyes, that’s an easy business decision.
- Talk realistically about competitiveness
After making the required concessions to defuse the attack, politely remind everyone of the realities of trying to compete with foreign labor markets.
As United Technologies (UTX) CEO Greg Hayes told CNBC’s Jim Cramer after the Carrier deal, there’s no putting “the genie of globalization” back in the bottle. He went on to say that if the Trump administration truly wants American manufacturing to compete effectively against foreign competitors, “it’s got to come from more thoughtful regulation and a more competitive tax rate.”
Translation: “We gave you a win in the media, and now we need you to give a win in reality.”
Paul Pendergrass is an independent communications advisor and speechwriter who writes on business, leadership, and communication.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the market cap of United Technologies. It is $90 billion, not $90 million.