The American Strongman – A Middle East view on Trump’s first 48 hours as President

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President Trump and his team have shown increasing disdain for the media during their first weekend in office. Some commentators have drawn parallels to my own region (image source: Vocativ)

If the first two days were anything to go by, we’re in for four years of presidential reality TV. From the spectacle of the inauguration of the 45th President of the United States to an impromptu press announcement at the White House (there were no questions, so I won’t call it a briefing), and news interviews by White House staffers attacking the media; all of these events have made for compelling viewing.

Looking in from the outside, here in the Middle East, none of these actions should surprise or startle me. I live in a region where the words media and propaganda are often used to mean the same thing in the Arabic language by the region’s population. I’ve also heard many commentators in the region (and in the US) compare what the Trump administration is doing with the media to how regimes such as Iraq’s Saddam Hussein ‘communicated’ (if you want an example, just watch this clip from Saddam’s Minister of Information Muhammed Saeed al-Sahaf during the 2003 Iraq invasion).

While there’s been much laughter at some of the messaging (the phrase “alternative facts” is my vote for the dictionary addition of 2017), I’ve seen a number of worrying signs that the Trump Administration wants to take the media and the public down a path that we’re all too familiar with in the region. Here’s why.

  • Delegitimize the Media

The first step on this road is silencing critics. And those who have been most critical of President Trump are the media. During the weekend when visiting Langley, the CIA’s headquarters, he uttered the line, “The reason you’re my first stop is that, as you know, I have a running war with the media. They are among the most dishonest human beings on Earth.” This was in part due to their coverage of the Presidential Inauguration, and their rebuttal of the claims on the number of attendees.

This isn’t a new statement. President Trump has made the claim numerous times, including in April 2016 when he said, “You know we have a great time considering the subject matter is no good. Right? But when we say—look at all those hats, right?—”Make America Great Again.” When we say that—you know somebody, a reporter—by the way the world’s most dishonest people are back there. Look at all the cameras going. Look at all those cameras. It’s unbelievable. They are dishonest. Most of them. Not all of them. But Most of them.”

And, here he is on camera saying the same thing.

The reasoning is simple. American media is independent of any government ownership, and as such it often takes politicians to task for their words and deeds. By delegitimizing the media and going straight to the public through social media (mainly Twitter), President Trump and his administration won’t face the same level of intrusive questioning. The administration has already threatened to hold the media to account, and President Trump has held one press conference since July 2016, during which he claimed CNN and Buzzfeed were fake news sites. A free media is an essential tool to hold governments to account; muzzle the media, discredit them, and you’ll face fewer questions from a diminishing press sector.

Vocativ has run a piece on this, named Trump And The Media: The Arab Dictator’s Guide. It’s a great read for those of you who follow media-related issues.

  • Change the Narrative

President Trump and his team are masters at switching attention from one issue to answer. In his blog, the London-based PR professional Stephen Waddington has listed a number of tactics used to divert attention from hard policy issues to softer social issues. One of my favorites is dead cats, and to quote from Wadds:

Trump uses Twitter as a tactical weapon, hitting out at opponents, and directly countering attacks.

Tweets are literal, short and direct. He uses capital letters, single words and repetition for effect. There can be no uncertainty in the content or context of a message, and he seldom entertains any further discussion.

It’s an approach is known as the dead cat, created by political strategist Lynton Crosby. His response to losing an argument was to throw an issue, known as a dead cat, on the table.

The appearance of a dead cat, albeit metaphorical, is shocking. It quickly shifts attention, forcing opponents to move on and focus on a new issue.

And then there’s a concept called the Overton Window. Developed by political analyst Joseph Overton, this is a spectrum of views which are deemed acceptable to the public. It also explains how  a theory of how a policy that’s initially considered extreme might over time be normalized through gradual shifts in public opinion.

There’s a similar theory in marketing. Known as the Anchoring Effect, this describes a common human tendency to rely too heavily on the first piece of information offered (the “anchor”) when making decisions. Once the anchor is set, decisions are then made by adjusting around the initial anchor, regardless of the legitimacy of the actual anchor number. For example, a brand will introduce a new, super premium/expensive toothpaste. That new product will shift perception of the whole category, and push consumers to spend more on toothpaste by choosing the second or third most expensive option.

We’re seeing this use of the Overton Window and the Anchoring Effect in US politics today, with politicians introducing extreme ideas to shift the discourse away from the mainstream and towards their own views and beliefs. They’re changing the narrative over the long-term, to make what was once unpalatable an acceptable argument.

These narrative tactics have been used in countless societies, most recently in countries such as Israel, where the public has accepted once right-wing ideas such as the expansion of settlements. It’s clear that President Trump’s team aren’t interested in answering questions on issues such as the Affordable Care Act, but rather they want to change the narrative around “Making America Great Again”, an idea of little substance but great appeal. We’re used to such efforts in the Middle East (Saddam regularly compared himself to great Iraqi heroes from history, as a means to encourage nostalgia and promote similar ideals).

  • Create a Cult of Personality

It’s also clear that President Trump has a thin skin. He’s repeated countless theories and statements about winning the popular vote (the President claims, without any evidence, that he lost the popular vote based on mass voter fraud). And then there’s the debate around the Inauguration attendance. This President takes things personally. He sees himself as a nation strongman who will change US politics for the betterment of its people. And woe betide those who disagree with him.

What’s also remarkable is how his team speak of the President. During the CIA visit at the weekend Vice President Pence introduced the President by informing the audience that he had never met anyone “who is a greater strategic thinker” on matters of national security. The White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus said on Sunday that, “I’ve never seen anyone work harder or have more energy than this president.”

If you were to listen to the administration’s messaging, you’d think President Trump is a superman, an Übermensch from the pages of Friedrich Nietzsche. The Chicago Tribune’s Steve Chapman points out the folly in their praise, but how many will believe the fawning praise? And where will this lead us to? Will we see the White House building a cult of personality around the President?

 

As a person who straddles both Eastern and Western cultures, I can see the successes and failures of these societies a different clarity. I admire the US for its freedom of speech (which is enshrined in the Constitution) and for its media industry. I’m also a believer in public debate when it comes to governance. Are the past couple of days a sign of things to come in the US? I hope that I’m mistaken, but over this first weekend of the Trump Presidency I have seen parallels between the two regions when it comes to media messaging. And this isn’t what I want to see for the US. I hope I’m wrong.

 

 

A crisis of competence or character? How to understand (and prepare for) crisis basics

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Are you prepared for the worst? (image source: http://www.adweek.com)

The past 18 months has been a remarkable time for crisis watchers. We’ve watched as global brands and leaders have become embroiled in crises. Some of these have been of their own making (think Sepp Blatter and FIFA, or Volkswagen and emissions). Others have been due to unfortunate circumstances, such as with Emirates flight 521.

As communications professionals out there know, there’s nothing like working on a crisis. In an excellent piece for the Financial Times by David Bond, Rupert Younger, director at the Oxford University Centre for Corporate Reputation, sorts crises into two basic definitions – a crisis of competence or a crisis of character. To quote from the piece:

Examples of competence scandals include Toyota’s 2009-11 recall of 4m of its cars because of defective accelerator pedals, or the battery defaults on some of Boeing’s Dreamliner aircraft. These, according to Mr Younger, can deliver a direct, and in some cases short-term, hit to a company’s sales figures.

A character crisis calls into question the culture and behaviour of a company and its senior executives and often arises out of media scrutiny or criminal or regulatory investigations. Fifa and News International were both crises of character.

The worst type of crisis involves both. The BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010 is a case in point. It was triggered by a disastrous oil rig explosion that called BP’s offshore drilling competence into question. But the company’s response turned the crisis into a far wider issue of trust.

As communicators, our roles have traditionally covered managing the fallout from a crisis. However, whether we like it or not (I hope the former), we’re also becoming the conscience of our organizations. It’s incumbent on us to speak up when we hear about or see an issue that could harm an organization’s reputation. This is easier said than done. Volkswagen is a great example of a crisis of character – dozens of VW employees must have known about the manipulation of data, and yet no one spoke up (or, if they did, the information didn’t get to the right people).

To tackle such a crisis, communicators need to work with executive management to create an ‘incident aware culture’. Employees should feel that they can report issues without reproach or fear of retaliation. Employees also need to feel that they’re working for and in an ethical organization that cares about doing the right thing. This requires continuous communication from and engagement by the board and management, as well as support from legal and HR teams. If things do go wrong, communicators and management need to proactively engage with stakeholders to explain what has happened and why, a strategy known as stealing thunder. This is best defined as an organization “breaking the news about its own crisis before the crisis is discovered by the media or other interested parties” (Arpan & Roskos-Ewoldsen, 2005).

Unfortunately, as has been noted by academics such as An-Sofie Claeys, this type of self-disclosure is rare in practice. As with the case of VW, organizations are tempted to conceal the crisis rather than make it public.

Crises of competence are easier to deal with. However, many of us still aren’t prepared for what happens when this type of crisis occurs. Here’s a simple crisis communications assessment grid developed by the communications team at US firm Timken, which establishes crisis severity based on the type of incident and the involvement of various stakeholders, as well as who needs to be involved.

timken-crisis-comms-framework

For a more detailed look at how to handle a crisis (pre, during and post), then have a look at this post I wrote after meeting with crisis communications expert Caroline Sapriel. And, if you have any feedback on how do deal with a crisis, please do share. I’d love to hear your views.

Guest post – Communication, Engagement and Excellent Customer Service

For my third guest post this week, I’ve asked internal comms specialist Kevin Ruck to weigh in on the link between good internal communications, employee engagement and customer service. Kevin Ruck, who is a founding director of PR Academy, initiated and designed the internal comms qualifications accredited by the Chartered Institute of Public Relations. Kevin is a regular speaker and author on all aspects of internal comms. He can and should be followed on Twitter at @AcademyKev. Over to you Kevin!

Guest post – Communication, Engagement and Excellent Customer Service 

As exceptional levels of customer service become more commonplace and enable organisations to thrive in challenging times, poor and mediocre service are increasingly noticeable. And in this ‘age of outrage’ customers are likely be more inclined to call out poor service in a very public way.

So how can organisations find ways to ensure that customers love what they do? In this post, I reflect on my own experience as a customer service manager and consider how internal communication might be one way to underpin a customer service oriented culture.

I spent many years early in my career dealing with complaints about poor telephone service in the UK. This was back in the 1980s when most telephone exchanges were mechanical (not digital like today) and the state of the line plant was fairly poor, resulting in lengthy delays to repairs and ongoing problems. Anyone remember crossed lines?

Dealing with people who complain is a very demanding job. No organisation will always get everything right, but it’s how customers are treated when things go wrong that matters. Even back then we realised that turning round a dissatisfied customer could be very beneficial for business. This often entailed doing something unexpected or behaving in a way that showed that you really cared.

I ran a great customer service team and we had to resolve some pretty tough problems. However, Shep Hyken, a US speaker and author says that ‘Customer service is not a department, it’s a philosophy’. And he’s right. But if this is true, it begs the question ‘what is a philosophy of great customer service like?’ In an article for the Huffington Post, Doug Sandler provides five tips. These include:

  • Respond quickly on social media
  • Anticipate what customers want
  • Be honest and have a perspective
  • Take responsibility and own up to any errors you or your company has made
  • Be positive and listen

All good points. I also like the example of British company, Brilliant Bikes, who state that ‘We look for ways to help cyclists get more from their bike. If a customer turns up at the shop early, we open early. When someone phones, they get a human’. This exemplifies a sense of purpose within the business that is translated into customer service.

So, how can all organisations get these approaches embedded into what they do?

This is a tough question. One that many academics and CEOs have grappled with for many years. I’m not going to provide a personal five point listicle in this post. That would imply that there’s a simple solution which patently there isn’t, otherwise excellent customer service would be ubiquitous.  Instead, I will set out how two broad principles for internal communication are important for a strong customer service culture.

In my PhD research, I found that internal communication that is focused on keeping employees informed and employee voice is likely to lead to higher levels of organisational engagement, including what employees do to help the organisation succeed. Good internal communication is a strong enabler of an organisational culture that leads to engagement. And there’s little doubt that engagement and customer service are connected – as reviewed in an Engage for Success report in the UK. Organisations that adopt what I’ve called an AVID model of good internal communication practice (see below) are likely to develop a culture whereby employees trust senior managers and feel a strong sense of belonging. Feeling informed, feeling that it’s safe to voice opinions that are treated seriously and feeling that senior managers care about everyone makes employees feel valued. And this can, in turn, enable employees to bring their whole self to the work that they do – including the service provided to customers.

One employee said to me that she could tell when a senior manager was listening to her when she noticed that he ‘was smiling but not with his eyes’. In the same way customers can tell when an employee genuinely cares for you as a customer.

An AVID model of good internal communication

The AVID internal communication engagement model

The AVID internal communication engagement model

Some CEOs, such as Vineet Nayar at HCL Technologies, go as far as to say that the best way to provide great customer service is to put employees first. As Nayar explains, ‘The first thing that you need to do is create an environment of trust where the employees believe what you are saying and are willing to follow you wherever you are going’.

This focus on employees is also highlighted in a new approach to leadership, known as ‘responsible leadership’ which incorporates four dimensions; sustainability and the environment, risk analysis, care for employees and monitoring of subcontractors (italics added).

So, great customer service can be generated through responsible leadership, communication and engagement. It requires systemic approaches to communication where senior managers take their communication role seriously. That’s why it is hard to achieve. But get it right and organisations will thrive in a 21st century service centred economy.

The need for clear communications – Saudi’s drive to balance the books

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Saudi’s social media scene has been on fire over the past week due to a number of controversial issues regarding government officials. This is a news story from the Times on a comment made by a minister regarding Saudi inefficiency.

This week has been an interesting one for Social Media watchers in the Kingdom. Thousands of Saudi nationals have taken part in online campaigns/used popular hashtags relating to three high-level government officials who have either made controversial statements or who have been accused of using their influence on behalf of family members (you can see media coverage on two of the issues from Saudi Gazette here and Arab News here). The campaigns follow a decision a month ago to cut benefits for Saudi government employees. The decree, which was made in light of low oil prices and a rising Saudi budget deficit, is biting hard; this week Reuters reported that the Saudi central bank had asked retail banks to reschedule property loans for those affected by the cuts.

One of the campaigns began after a government document was leaked online, with personal details including name, position and salary. It’s only logical to assume that many government officials in the Kingdom are angry at seeing their pay cheques shrink; they’ll become even more angry when they see what they feel to be others not doing the same. In this environment, it wouldn’t be hard to also imagine officials being able to take a picture via their smartphone of a document which may reveal an embarrassing situation and then sharing it via social media (or, more likely, dark social).

I had the pleasure of listening to a senior Saudi journalist this week. He made a pertinent point when he said, “We can spend billions on consultants. We could have spent millions on a PR agency to convey the message behind the cuts and why they were necessary.”

In times of hardship, good communications becomes even more important. Saudi’s citizens need to understand the logic behind government decisions. They need to feel that they are engaged and are part of the debate. And they need to see government’s leadership doing just that, namely leading by example (as I’ve said before, actions are much more powerful than words in shaping perception).

We may see more issues coming to light in the Kingdom over the coming months, and more skeletons being revealed in government closets. When it comes to the government’s engagement and communication with its people, the transparency, clarity and consistency (or lack of) will either help get many Saudi citizens on board, or it may alienate them further. I for one hope it’s the former, rather than the latter.

 

The Role Communicators Have in Promoting Sustainability

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I’ve been fortunate in my career to have worked with some amazing brands and organizations. In particular, the most forward-thinking have focused on the issue of sustainability. It’s become a passion for me, as I want my daughter to inherit a world that is better than ours.

I’m often asked to support events on sustainability. One such initiative which I’m very proud of being able to help is that of the UAE’s Ajman Center for Social Responsibility. Launched by the Ajman Chamber this year, the Ajman Center for Social Responsibility aims to promote the concept of sustainability for both the public and private sectors as well as create a resource for sustainability across this emirate. Assisted by the consultancy firm Sustainable Square, the team at the Center have set for themselves a vision of becoming the regional and global reference for social responsibility and sustainability practices. And, judging by the energy they have, I feel they’ll reach this goal.

For many of us communicators in the Middle East region, we’ve taken on the mantle of championing sustainability. Sometimes it’s due to reputational reasons; the need to be seen to be doing good. For others, it’s been about the willingness to tackle an issue that isn’t going away. There’s some confusion around sustainability and the role of communications in the Middle East; I remember well one senior comms professional erroneously commenting  during a public meeting that the function has always been with communications, despite all of the literature from the 1950s and 1960s by Bowen, Freeman and others which argues that organizations have a social obligation to “to pursue those policies, to make those decisions, or to follow those lines of action which are desirable in terms of the objectives and values of our society.” In short, when it comes to sustainability in the Middle East, we can come across as a confused bunch.

For me, sustainability should be at the heart of any organization – it should be a part of every person’s job function. So, what is the role that communicators should play? We are the change agents, the people whose job it is to tell stories around purpose, and who can best use engagement to win over various stakeholder groups, be they internal (employees, management or shareholders), or external (government, NGOs or the public) as to why there is a need to become more sustainable and how we should get there.

Examples of good sustainability communications work are both global and local in nature. Take for example  the work done by Mars for its M&Ms brand. Mars reached out to the M&Ms consumer base in a smart way, by using the M&Ms characters everyone knows, to talk about initiatives around sustainable cocoa production and other CSR causes by telling the stories through the same M&M characters used to promote the brand.

On a local level, a good communications campaign can be something as simple as promoting safe driving, which environmental and engineering consulting services firm CH2M launched both globally as well as locally.

As communicators, our role is to understand our audience(s), know how to engage with them, and shape messaging that will impact both attitudes and behaviours. It’s never easy to change habits that have been ingrained for years, especially when it comes to sustainability (anyone who has worked on a recycling initiative will know how hard it can be to get people to recycle rather than throw materials into the trash).

However, that’s the beauty of our job as communicators. We’re the front line, the people who take a concept and make it happen with those groups whom we need to come on board. To quote from the United Nations Environmental Program:

Public communication has a key role to play to build on these emerging trends and to make sustainable development approachable and understandable. Informed, motivated and committed people can help us to achieve our sustainability goals. However, communicating effectively about sustainable lifestyles is a challenge. One needs to consider not only what to communicate, but how to communicate it.

Important factors of success include content, messenger, choice of media and tone. Experts are coming to realise that traditional messages from governments and green groups urging the public to adopt the environment into their day-to-day decisions need to be overhauled. Many of these messages are simply too patronising, guilt-laden or disapproving. Instead of turning people on to the environment, they risk switching
them off. The lesson to be learned is that communication styles have to be positive and tailored to different circumstances and cultural contexts.

If you want to know more about communicating sustainable issues, there are people who specialize in this issue. Sustainable Square’s Monaem Ben Lellahom is a great person to approach as he both understands the issue of sustainability as well as how to communicate around it; another person who focuses on sustainability is Stephen King, who focuses on the sustainable development goals. I’d urge you to reach out to either or myself to ask questions about how we can communicate sustainability better in this region.

 

@Wadds on uncertainty and life in the UK post-Brexit

In another guest post, I’ve asked the respected public relations industry figure Stephen Waddington to share his thoughts on Brexit. Strap yourself in for the read.

The vote for Brexit will have many consequences for the UK, including for its communications industry, argues Wadds (image source: http://www.fortune.com)

The lack of planning and political fallout from the UK’s European Referendum mean that Brexit will remain a work in progress for a long time to come.

Alex asked to me to draft a guest blog post reflecting on life in Britain post Brexit shortly after the European Union (EU) Referendum result at the end of June.

I dodged the opportunity initially, not because I didn’t have a view, but because for three or four weeks it was really difficult to make sense of what was happening in the UK.

It’s has taken me the summer to come to terms with the fact that the UK voted to leave the EU. I was convinced by conversations on Facebook and Twitter that UK citizens would vote remain. I was stuck in a filter bubble.

The Referendum divided the country. The remain campaign was based on rational argument; the Brexit campaign, by contrast, on emotion.

UK citizens used the Referendum as an opportunity to vent their anger at the political classes in London and Brussels. It exposed a split between London, Northern Ireland and Scotland which all voted remain and the rest of the UK which voted Brexit.

More than two months after the result we’re becoming used to living with the uncertainty. What Brexit means and how it will happen are both a work in process.

The Conservative Prime Minster resigned and was replaced without a leadership election. The Labour party remains in the midst of leadership election.

The new Prime Minister Theresa May has created a Ministry for Brexit led by Eurosceptic David Davis, and has appointed Brexit campaigners Liam Fox and Boris Johnson as trade secretary and foreign secretary respectively.

Both Davis and Fox are recruiting the small army of people needed to work on the exit negotiation with the EU. 1,250 positions have been created in trade and diplomacy.

The UK will have two years to negotiate its exit once it triggers Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty.

In that time it will need to determine how to manage more than four decades of law that are entwined with the EU, and negotiate trade deals on an industry-by-industry basis with the 27 member states, and major countries around the world.

There’s also the issue of the free movement of people. Take back control [of UK borders] was a campaign slogan for the remain campaign.

It’s an issue that impacts the UK’s future trade agreements but also impacts UK citizens living in EU countries and EU citizens living in the UK.

People like markets don’t respond well to uncertainty. The government needs to move quickly to reassure people and investment that the UK remains a good place to both invest and build a career.

The UK is a centre of excellence for talent in the creative industries, including my own trade, public relations. I’m keen to see this remain the case.

The emergency budget, and recession, both predicted by the remain campaign haven’t happened. But UK currency shows no sign of returning to pre-referendum levels.

£1 was worth $1.50 on the day of the Referendum. Today the £ is trading at an average of $1.30. The foreign exchange markets have priced down UK assets by more than 15%. It’s the one area of absolute certainty.

The rest is yet to be seen.

Stephen Waddington is Partner and Chief Engagement Officer, Ketchum and Visiting Professor in Practice, Newcastle University. He blog at wadds.co.uk and you can connect with him on Twitter @wadds.

The importance of reputation – the examples of Mubadala and IPIC


The concept of reputation, which can be defined as how much stakeholders trust organizations, is often difficult to measure. It’s an intangible, an idea which is often best understood at the most inappropriate time (in other words, during a crisis).

In Abu Dhabi last week news broke about a merger between two government-owned investment vehicles. The deal between Mubadala and IPIC would create a combined fund worth US$135 billion according to Reuters. At a time of budget tightening due to low oil prices, the merger promises to bring about significant cost savings according to media reports.

Reuters had another interesting take on the merger, which I’ll copy from the article.

IPIC is also in the midst of a row with 1MDB. The Abu Dhabi fund has asked a London court to arbitrate in a dispute with the Malaysian state fund over a debt restructuring in which IPIC is claiming about $6.5 billion.

While unlikely to impact these proceedings, the sovereign wealth fund analyst said the scandal had undermined IPIC’s reputation and so a tie-up with Mubadala, which is considered one of the better-run state investment funds in the region, would be beneficial.

The analyst that Reuters spoke to argued that IPIC’s reputation was hit by the issue in Malaysia. In addition, the departure of its previous CEO and dealings in its investments such as Arabtec have also contributed to reputation all issues. In contrast, Mubadala has a strong brand, helped in part to the leadership of its management and financial transparency.

It’s not only communicators who need to understand that every action will impact organizational reputation (leaders of listed companies know all too well what public sentiment can do to the stock price, and their jobs). The Mubadala-IPIC merger is an example of how much both good and not so good reputations can impact the business.