Reputation Management in the Era of @realDonaldTrump

It’s 6 a.m. and before you’ve poured your first cup of coffee, your phone alerts you to a spike in activity on your company’s Twitter account. A really BIG spike. Then the phone rings. And rings, and rings. It’s your boss. Analysts. Media. Congratulations – @realDonaldTrump has just mentioned your company in one of his early morning missives.

How likely is this scenario? Very.

Whether you make cars (Toyota, GM, Chrysler) or sell coats (Macy’s), if you are a company doing business in America – particularly if your company is a household name – you are officially on notice. Even if Trump likes you. January 20 isn’t just #DayOne for the Trump Administration, it’s also day one operating in a new reality where the President of the United States has the power to move stock prices with a mere @mention at any time of the day or night (but it will probably be around 6 a.m.).

While the channel might be new, the President having both the power and ability to speak directly and as frankly as he’d like with the American public is not new. President Franklin Roosevelt’s legendary “fireside chats” were basically the Twitter of the 1930s and 40s. Never had the America public heard so directly and personally from their President – right in their own living rooms! The candor was unprecedented: in one broadcast, he said the country in early 1933 was “dying by inches.”

To be sure, there are still uncharted waters ahead as communicators, media and the public adjust to this new normal. But what every communicator can and should be doing in the meantime is the same as with any good crisis communications plan: prepare, prepare, prepare. Then prepare some more.

In this scenario plan, you must start with a clear-eyed assessment of your risk areas, using history (Trump’s Twitter feed) as your guide. For example, restructuring that risks American jobs, particularly in swing states that helped to deliver Trump the Presidency, is on his watch list. So too are drug pricing and off-shore tax structures.  And, it hardly matters if these things are actually happening in your business – the mere PERCEPTION can put your company in the spotlight, as Toyota quickly learned.

Trump has made clear he knows how to write a headline, and the 140-character headline is what drives Twitter.  While this knowledge might not make it possible to predict the next tweet, it can help you anticipate what is more likely to attract attention. This means it is critically important to know your story – and know how to tell it in authentic, social media-friendly ways – before it becomes Trump’s latest headline. What does your company or organization mean to the American economy? What meaningful impact are you making in the communities where you operate? Know the answers to these questions, and know how to tell them in social, shareable story format.

While mere mention of plummeting stock prices are enough to strike fear into the hearts of many a C-suite, there is a risk to overreacting. You are one tweet away from being old news, and the reasons for whatever business decision you’ve made that attracted this attention will still be there tomorrow. A knee-jerk reaction isn’t always what is best for the long-term health of the business, and your reputation. Understanding how far your company might be willing to go in response to a tweet is a conversation to start now – not at 6:35 AM when that famous Android logs on. Establishing a monitoring and rapid response protocol that includes a clear and specific approval chain is particularly important.

If you do decide to engage, it’s important to not take the bait (and inadvertently kick off a Twitter feud), while also being a strong defender of your brand. What’s more, your response must work in the context of where the problem started. There just isn’t the space – or attention – for a litany of statistics or nuanced explanations. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s measured video response to Trump’s Apprentice dig is a great example – it’s consistent with the image he wants to uphold as a former Governor, and he used video to respond on the platform where the story originated.

Crafting the perfect response isn’t enough to ensure your stakeholders believe it and see it – in addition to the tweet that started this problem.  To get the broadcast power you need behind your response, rally third party voices– top customers, business partners, community leaders and even traditional media – to help amplify your position, with an eye to those who have a strong social media presence on their own. And don’t overlook your internal stakeholders either. Employees and shareholders should hear directly from you about the issue. They can quickly become your biggest champions – or your biggest detractors, depending on how you engage.

Not every business decision can be explained in 140 characters or less. But like it or not, this is now the starting point for how brands must view every announcement that might provide fodder for our 45th President of the United States. #DayOne

Erica Noble is an executive vice president for Edelman’s Washington, D.C. office.