In the not-too-distant past, most CEOs could safely assume an interview about their business was going to be just that – and not about the political issues of the day, unless their business or industry was inextricably linked to the policy or politics in play. Those days are gone. With more and more companies speaking out about the Trump Administration’s actions, executives of all stripes represent a fresh crop of potential voices for the political spin cycle. And reporters are not letting these opportunities pass; they know that for the time being, audiences remain hungry for news about the President and will look to fuel the fire.
From now on, CEOs and executives must prepare for every interview with the expectation that they will be asked about President Trump’s leadership or his Administration’s latest policy. In-artfully answering these questions can lead to swift and immediate backlash from your employees, your customers and consumers at-large.
When these kinds of questions arise, there are four options: 1) say something supportive; 2) say something critical; 3) try to navigate the middle by offering something both positive and negative; or 4) say nothing about the President or his Administration and stick to talking about your business.
All of these options come with some degree of risk. If you choose the fourth option – not addressing the question – there’s risk in appearing defensive or evasive, which no leader or organization desires. But, it’s important to weigh that against the risk inherent in the first three options. In today’s polarized environment, the public is ready to dissect any statement that could be construed as political, make a judgement, and then use the power of their Twitter handle or wallet to reward — or punish — companies. Americans are energized and activating from both sides of the spectrum, so whether you plan to (or inadvertently) weigh in on politics, chances are you will get a response from both sides.
That’s not to say that there aren’t good reasons for business leaders to stake out a position on public policy issues. There definitely are. If an issue is directly affecting your employees, your business model or your customers, then it may be necessary to offer your views. If an issue is completely at odds with the values you hold as a company and you feel you cannot stay silent, then you may choose to speak out. But if you’re going to make the choice to wade into politics, you need to be prepared for the potential reaction.
Smart CEOs and executives have always recognized the importance of media training and preparation for interviews, speeches and public appearances so that you can tell your story effectively while avoiding the landmines you don’t want to hit. It’s never been more important to prepare than now.
Rather than make risky calculations on the spot in an interview, we recommend organizations spend time in advance thinking about how they want to respond to the news of the day. Think about all the political questions you could get asked by assessing your company and industry vulnerabilities in advance. It’s also helpful to assess what your competitors have been asked, and how they have responded, as well as any reactions. Develop responses that position your company where you want to be, and then practice those responses, and practice again. Because even if you know what you want to say, delivering your messages poorly or getting inadvertently pulled into a politically-charged topic can have major consequences.
No matter which route you choose, message discipline across your organization is essential. The most effective and articulate performance by a spokesman on television can be undone by an ill-considered Tweet elsewhere in the organization. It’s important to recognize that business as usual may now involve talking politics. Investing the time to plan ahead, develop clear points of view and practice can make all the difference.
Caitlin Hayden is executive vice president and director of Edelman D.C.’s Media Services and Strategies group. She is also a former National Security Council Spokesperson in the Obama White House.