TWITTER WARFARE

American companies are bracing for a new kind of “natural disaster”: a mean tweet from Donald Trump

Obsession
"America First"
Obsession
"America First"

Say what you will about his hands, but Donald Trump now has the most powerful thumbs in the world. Even before he was sworn in as president, Trump tapping out tirades on Twitter regularly spooked investors and sent CEOs scurrying to save their stock price.

No company appears to be safe (and woe to those closing US factories). Trump tweets have wiped billions of dollars off public companies’ share values, and ignited national boycotts by irate customers. Victims of Trump’s attention form a roll call of blue-chip stocks: Lockheed Martin, Toyota, Carrier, Ford, General Motors, and Boeing have all been in Trump’s crosshairs, directly or indirectly.

A new industry is emerging in response. Consulting, communications, and public affairs firms in Washington DC have been inundated with calls to help insulate clients from Trump’s attacks via social media. They’re offering strategic advice to protect against the nightmare scenario: a direct assault by the president of the United States. The new playbook for firms bracing for the impact of a Trump presidency involves risk assessments, cultivating Congressional allies, recording testimonials, and rapid response teams for Twitter and Facebook.

Of the eight DC firms Quartz spoke to this month, all were discussing crisis plans with clients to deal with a negative Trump tweet. Several were in the midst of formalizing packages as a kind of insurance plan. One global strategy firm told Quartz it had issued a company-wide directive saying that Trump’s tweets should be treated the same way as an earthquake or flood. “We are putting them in the same class as a natural disaster: a random event, out of the blue, with a really massive cleanup,” said a senior consultant.

For Boeing, that cleanup involved the airplane company’s CEO, Dennis Muilenburg, making a pilgrimage to Trump Tower to undo the damage caused by Trump’s (somewhat inaccurate) Twitter thrashing:

After a meeting in which he promised to find savings, Muilenburg praised Trump for “doing a great job of engaging with business.”

Trump’s typing has also roiled international currency markets: Mexican traders have joked the country should just buy Twitter for $12 billion and shut it down, rather than spend billions defending its currency every time Trump tweets about trade and immigration, reports Bloomberg.

For some, including the outdoor apparel company L.L.Bean, even Trump’s praise can be catastrophic. After a supportive tweet from Trump, the Maine company faced a customer backlash by those vowing to toss their backpacks and clothing:

Meanwhile, the sneaker brand New Balance is battling its own boycott after its CEO supported Trump’s policy on international trade agreements and a neo-Nazi blogger declared New Balance the “official shoes of white people.” (New Balance, one of the few shoe companies that does most of its manufacturing in the US, said it rejects bigotry or hate in any form.)

“It’s simply a risk of being pulled into his orbit,” says Andrew Paven of the media and government relations firm O’Neill and Associates.

To cope, experts are counseling proactive defense, says Andrew Shore of the DC law firm Jochum, Shore & Trossevin PC. “‘Duck and cover’ isn’t a strategy,” said Shore, a lobbyist and former Republican congressional staffer.

First, said the firm’s communications specialist Erica Richardson, companies should assess their vulnerabilities based on their industry, labor practices, pending legislation, employees’ political activity and other factors. She suggests bolstering existing relationships with allies in the Trump administration or Congress, as well as forging new ones, to guard against politicians preparing to copy Trump’s tactics. “It wouldn’t surprise me if this approach opens the door to members of Congress following his lead on social media,” she said. Companies should also prepare for a crisis with rapid response teams armed with fact-sheets, customer testimonials and pre-approved content for Twitter, Facebook and other channels—to forcefully challenge the narrative within hours, if not minutes.

Some firms are not waiting to tout their American investments and jobs (many planned long before the election). Amazon’s CEO Jeff Bezos declared the company was creating 100,000 full-time US jobs over the next 18 months, many of them warehouse and call center positions that analysts said were already in the works. Fiat Chrysler Automobiles announced that it was investing $1 billion creating 2,000 US jobs (but denied that Trump’s tweets affected the investment decision).

Expect more of this. The rhetorical weight of Trump’s 140 characters is growing. Trump’s Twitter following, already 20 million or so strong at inauguration, has now added another 14.5 million followers via the @POTUS handle (although many may overlap). With this megaphone, Trump can direct public attention where he wants it, in an instant.

Trump lied regularly as a candidate, and has continued to do so as president (most recently telling lawmakers that millions of unauthorized immigrants robbed him of the popular vote). Twitter allows Trump to bypass the media and its fact-checking, and it amplifies his messages, many of which are taken up at obliging outlets such as Fox and Brietbart News. Each tweet sets off an automated process as well. Every time @realdonaldtrump tweets, thousands of computer algorithms spring into action, reports MarketWatch, triggering stocks being bought and sold, and alerts sent to investors.

“Trump’s ability to dominate the information flow is unlike anything we had ever seen,” says Alex Conant of Firehouse Strategies, a former communications director for Florida congressman Marco Rubio’s failed presidential campaign. “He has a huge microphone and he’s using to shape the national conversation.”

As the president has forged an alternative reality for millions of Americans, some of his Republican colleagues are promoting Trump’s Twitter feed as the sole source of truth—over independent sources and media:

So far most experts have advised companies that the best strategy is to appease Trump and his team. But it’s only a matter of time before some companies strike back, says Richard Levick, who runs his eponymous communications firm. “I think in the not-too-distant future that there will be a company, probably a tech company, that will do the calculus just as Trump does and say, ‘There’s more to be gained by standing up and fighting back,'” he says. “Once that happens, every other company will follow suit. At that point, he’ll be seen as the king without any clothing.”

Julie Hootkin, an executive at the public affairs agency GlobalStrategyGroup, argues that actively opposing Trump is going to be a winning strategy. “The assumption is [Trump] can really do damage to your reputation,” says Hootkin, whose firm works with Democratic-leaning clients. “Many brands’ corporate values are aligned with diversity, inclusion and environmental stewardship. For those companies, getting called out by Trump may not be that bad. He may be a really good foil for doubling down on your reputation.”

For this strategy, a template already exists: media companies. So far, news outlets have thrived whenever Trump has singled them out. The New York Times says it saw record-breaking subscription growth in 2016, even as Trump unloaded on the newspaper:

And a scathing review of Trump Grill by Vanity Fair—calling it possibly the worst restaurant in America—prompted a swift retort from Trump:

The day of that tweet, reports Folio, Vanity Fair saw an unprecedented surge in new subscriptions.

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