The 3 issues today’s crisis comms professional needs to tackle

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Make sure that you’re prepared for these three big issues which are shifting the crisis comms goalposts (image source: http://www.bairdscmc.com)

It doesn’t take a genius to tell you that the world is changing, and with it the way that crises develop. I was listening to a very engaging podcast by the Gulf News business team, with communications professional Omar Qirem (check out the post here).

While the conversation touched on a host of crisis issues and triggers, there were three big issues that are relatively new, and which are shifting the crisis communications landscape.

Hacking and Emails

Long gone are the days when whistleblowers would walk out of offices with a suitcase full of papers. Today, information is conveyed electronically, and all it took for Chelsea Manning to leak hundreds of thousands of US military documents to Wikileaks was a single USB drive. Hacking is becoming a real problem for both governments the world over, as well as corporates (just ask Sony).

Hacking is developing from the well-understood concept of the ethically-troubled whistleblower to groups-for-hire who are ready and willing to hack email servers, or public domain accounts in the search of damaging information. Hackers can also attack websites and social media accounts to fake news, or even create fake sites which are mirrored on the real thing.

We’re going to have to become more aware of these threats, and develop mitigation strategies, including better security (at the very least, please use two-factor authentication as much as you can and don’t use the same password for every single account), and also educate executives on the need to communicate differently. What you write can be leaked; are you willing to see that email on the front page of a newspaper, or a website?

The Rise of Values-Based Communication

Consumers aren’t just interested in what brands make and sell. They want to know what we stand for. This public interest has partly been driven by the political climate in the US and Western Europe and by the behavior of millennials and their increasing skepticism of established institutions. For brands, value-based communications is a key point of differentiation, particularly for industries which have been impacted by technology-driven commoditization. Think of Paul Unilever’s Polman and his passionate belief in sustainability.

Conversely, executive behavior which is looked down upon by the public can have serious business implications. Whilst the official reasons for Uber being stripped of its London license were due to questions around passenger safety and drivers’ rights, the behavior and words of former CEO Travis Kalanick haven’t done Uber any good. The apology proffered by the new CEO, Dara Khosrowshahi, seems to have gone a long way to defusing some of the tension between Uber and Transport for London which oversees the company’s license to operate.

Data and Online Regulation

We’ve been living in the internet age for over two decades now, and business has benefited from a relative lack of legislation and regulation about what can and can’t be done online, particularly with data. That has slowly changed as governments have sought to understand how the internet has changed our lives. Upcoming legislation in Europe, the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), is going to change how corporations monitor and store data (it’s been covered in some detail by Rachel Miller for the CIPR). There’s no doubt in my mind that the online and social media networks will also have to deal with more governmental oversight. There’s been a string of scandals around issues such as extremist content on YouTube,  Facebook and the Trump election, and Twitter’s lack of action on far-right hate speech.

Whilst I’m certain that more regulation is coming, and soon, it’s far too early to say how this will change how we as communicators operate online. There will be more data-related crises, either due to how data is collected and used, or due to an inability to adhere to these new rules.

As always, I’d love to know your thoughts. What issues do we need to better understand when it comes to modern-day crises? Please do share with me your thoughts.

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.

Recycle Old News or Stick to Brand Values? How will firms deal with Trump?

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Trump’s Twitter attacks have targeted a number of firms. His behavior may not change when he takes up the Presidency today.

Trust me, it’s happening. Today, Donald Trump will be sworn in as President of the United States. And, judging by the past couple of months, Trump will personally run his agenda of making America great again across the entire business community. Shel Holtz has written a fantastic piece about the impact that Trump has when he Tweets about a company which he feels isn’t doing enough to support his American vision.

Companies will have two basic strategies to deal with this new type of political risk; they can either recycle old news, or they can resist Trump’s attacks, and fight back (yes, you read that right, brands will go up against Trump).

We’re already seeing firms come out with a raft of job announcements. This week General Motors said it would invest US$1 billion in its U.S. manufacturing operations, which will lead to the creation or retention of 1,500 jobs, adding that it would also add another 5,000 American jobs “over the next few years” in finance and advanced technology. Fulfilling another Trump pledge, GM announced that around 450 jobs will be returned to the US as GM transfers back parts production from Mexico.

Other firms have also put out jobs announcements. Amazon, whose founder Jeff Bezos publicly rowed with Trump during the election campaign, announced that it’d hire over 100,000 staff over the next 18 months. “It’s a very powerful headline, and the timing certainly makes Trump look good,” Ivan Feinseth, an analyst at Tigress Financial Partners LLC, told Bloomberg. “It’s going to happen in the first year and half of his administration. Bezos couldn’t have set him up any better to look good — timing is everything.”

China’s Alibaba has sought to allay Trump’s Chinese angst by promoting job creation in the US. Last week, Alibaba chairman Jack Ma met with the president-elect to tell him that the Chinese Internet giant would create 1 million jobs for Americans by helping small domestic businesses sell to Asian markets via Alibaba.

Job creation in the US is a tactic that many firms will seek to copy over the coming months as Trump takes charge. How many of these announcements will stack up, who knows. We’ll only know for sure after the space of months or years. However, many brands will be tempted to win favor with Trump’s administration and stay out of his crosshairs by pushing job news. The questions many will ask are, is the news real (for example, will Alibaba really be able to create a million jobs for Americans?), and is the news old? It’s been alleged that the GM announcement was planned as far back as 2014.

The other approach that companies will take is to stand up to Trump. Speaking to the San Francisco Chronicle, Richard Levick, president and CEO of the Levick public relations and communications firm explained why.

“Other companies will realize that the king doesn’t have a lot of clothing here,” he said. “At some point in the not too -distant future, a company will realize that there is greater value in being courageous and standing up to the president.”

To date, the best example of a brand fighting back against Trump is Vanity Fair. The publication, whose editor Graydon Carter has long been a critic, ran a piece in December last year titled, “Trump Grill Could Be The Worst Restaurant In America”. Needless to say, it didn’t go down well with the President-Elect.

The magazine responded  instantly, running a headline banner ad across its own and other sites entitled “The Magazine Donald Trump Doesn’t Want You to Read.” The result was 40,000 new subscribers.

“Vanity Fair played that perfectly,” Scott Farrell, an expert in crisis management and the president of Golin Corporate Communications, told the New York Times. “‘This was the magazine that Trump doesn’t want you to read.’ I think their response was consistent with the brand’s DNA.”

Firms will either have to proactively plan to put out information that will appeal to the new administration. Or they’ll have to plan on how to respond to a potential attach. Whatever they do, brands will have to move with speed, to counter Trump’s use of Twitter. Whichever route brands take, crisis comms experts (and the rest of us) are going to have an interesting four years. Unless someone turns off the WiFi in Trump Towers, that is.

Caroline Sapriel and a masterclass in crisis communications

While I’ve been in the communications industry for a while (read the lines on my face!), every now and then I have the opportunity to meet someone who wows me. I had that feeling two weeks back when I met with Caroline Sapriel. Caroline, who is an expert in crisis management and communications, was invited along by the International Association of Business Communicators to talk about her insights on crises. What with all that is happening globally, it seemed apt to talk about how we can communicate better on issues that have an adverse impact, both on reputations and operations.

First of all, Caroline defined a crisis by three points:

1) Surprise

2) Brevity or shortness of time

3) Threat

What is fascinating is Caroline’s assertion that two-third of crises are smoldering, in other words they’re issues which aren’t tackled properly or which are ignored. However, as Caroline also adds, “most organizations don’t properly understand what a crisis is.”

Now, to the good news. Organizations rarely face true crises, issues which can substantially damage or stop operations and ultimately destroy reputations. However, most crises are still handled incorrectly. Many leaders look to manage a crisis in the same way as they manage through normal times, by forming a consensus and aligning others. However, Caroline states that a crisis needs a different type of behaviour, one that follows a command and control model where one person takes charge and acts decisively, with or without the approval of others. She spelled out five key competencies that leaders need to navigate a crisis.

1) Situational awareness and analysis

2) Sense-making

3) Stakeholder mapping

4) Scenario planning

5) Decision-making in a crisis

Now, let’s come to our role as communicators. Caroline was very kind to share her company’s integrated business contingency framework as well as spell out her 10 commandments of crisis management, which are based on decades of hands-on experience as well as research.

CS&A's integrated business contingency framework seeks to explain how communications and stakeholder management can support organizations in a crisis, through every stage of a crisis.

CS&A’s integrated business contingency framework seeks to explain how communications and stakeholder management can support organizations in a crisis, through every stage of a crisis.

The 10 commandments is also a fantastic read:

#1 Own up to and communicate the problem early on

#2 Recognize that you cannot make what is bad look good

#3 Be prepared for the worst. In a crisis, things get worse before they get better

#4 Prioritize and remember people’s safety is always first

#5 Focus on protecting your credibility and not winning brownie points

#6 Set the course, have a Mission Statement and stick to it

#7 Map and remap issues and stakeholders as the situation develops

#8 Use every available channel to communicate with your stakeholders

#9 If the crisis drags, don’t retreat into a siege. Stay out there!

#10 Manage the aftermath of the crisis. Remember, it’s not over until it’s really over

Caroline adds that in a crisis we can’t control the events, but we can control our credibility.

If you’re wondering how your organization is doing, have a look at the below image which has been developed by Caroline and her organization. The crisis management culture ladder will help you to understand where you are in terms of preparing your organization for a crisis.

CS&A's crisis management culture ladder maps out where organizations are in terms of their ability to manage and learn from a crisis. At the bottom are organizations who essentially don't care as long as they're not caught; at the top are organizations who thrive on and grow with every crisis they encounter. Where are you at?

CS&A’s crisis management culture ladder maps out where organizations are in terms of their ability to manage and learn from a crisis. At the bottom are organizations who essentially don’t care as long as they’re not caught; at the top are organizations who thrive on and grow with every crisis they encounter. Where are you at?

As an additional plus, Caroline has shared a reading list that will help guide you on improving your understanding of crises and what you should do to prepare as a communicator and leader.

On a final note, I’d like to thank Caroline for her time. And if you’re interested in knowing more about Caroline Sapriel, she’s the managing partner and founder of CS&A International, a pioneer and a recognised leader in the field of risk, crisis and business continuity management. For additional information please visit her company’s website.

Keep Calm, Say Nothing – QNB’s response to the customer data hack crisis

Qatar National Bank's reputation has literally gone down like the Titanic according to this visual from a reader of Doha News (source: Doha News)

Qatar National Bank’s reputation has literally gone down like the Titanic according to this visual from a reader of Doha News (source: Doha News)

Like it or not, there will be times when the proverbial @#$% hits the fan. Each and every organization will go through a crisis. What matters is how an organization responds to the crisis and communicates this response.

Before I talk about the bank in question, I want to step to talk a little about crisis communications. Crisis comms is an artform, and some people (who get paid lots of money) do crisis comms for a full time living. When dealing with a crisis, communications theory states that there are three steps. The first is pre-crisis, which involves setting up a team and processes (the who and the how), and then practising for situations that are likely to occur. The second phase is the crisis itself, and the third is post-crisis and fixing the issue.

Last week someone allegedly released a huge amount of customer data which was hacked from Qatar National Bank. The 1.4 gigabyte file was put online for download. A data hack of customer information is one of the worst things that can happen to a retail bank. But it gets worse. To quote from Doha News.

The data included the financial and personal information of thousands people, many of them QNB customers, and is being spread widely on social media and file-sharing websites.

Cyber security experts said as many as 400,000 customers could be affected, in what is being called one of Qatar’s biggest data breaches.

Since yesterday, several customers have reported attempts to break into their bank accounts, although these appear to have been blocked before any transfers took place.

Others have said there have been attempts to access and even alter their social media accounts.

Yes, it was that bad. But instead of communicating and advising customers on what to do and how to keep themselves safe, QNB’s media team didn’t say a thing. Well, almost. Again, back to Doha News.

More than 24 hours after the data breach became public, QNB has not answered questions from Doha News on what actions customers should take to protect themselves and many customers say they have yet to be contacted by the bank.

Online, it has continued to respond to questions by pointing to yesterday’s statement that said it does not comment on “social media speculation,” even though the confidential information about thousands of its customers is online for anyone to access.

According to the reaction of dozens of customers, some of the information is correct. And yet, even QNB’s Call Center and retail branches are holding fast and not saying anything. One customer was allegedly told that the allegations were ‘propaganda’.

All credit to Doha News. The Qatar-based news website has covered the issue from its beginning with a level of thoroughness that should be a lesson for all local media outlets in the region. The last piece it ran was about a website which could help QNB customers check if they were hacked or not.

Doha News has also been doing much of the work which should have been done by QNB itself, namely advise customers on what is happening, tell them what action they should take and why. QNB’s silence on the issue is a classic example of how organizations in the region used to deal with a crisis prior to the advent of social media. You dig your head in the sand and hope it’ll go away. Well, this is what they’ve done and their reputation has gone down with the Titanic.

Instead, they should have been responding through all consumer-focused communications channels, including social media (a digital crisis consultant I respect greatly and ex-head of comms for the BBC, Donald Steel, advises that any online response should take no longer than 15 minutes). By acknowledging the problem, by explaining how their customers can keep safe, and by promising a review of their security setup, QNB would have helped to have turned a crisis into an opportunity to demonstrate both transparency and concern for customers and their well-being.

In their response (or lack thereof) QNB has looked archaic and they’ve compounded the damage by seeming not to care. I hope that others take stock of the online backlash and understand that when it comes to a crisis in the Gulf, silence is never golden.

Flip-Flopping during a crisis – how Damac’s handling of the Trump backlash has proved costly

First you don't see it, then you do. Damac initially removed Trump's name after his comments on Muslims, only to restore it a couple of days after (top photo by Reuters/bottom photo by  Rahul Gajjar of Khaleej Times)

First you don’t see it, then you do. Damac initially removed Trump’s name after his comments on Muslims, only to restore it a couple of days after (top photo by Reuters/bottom photo by Rahul Gajjar of Khaleej Times)

Imagine for a moment, if you will, one of your key business partners/influencers saying something controversial. Imagine that they’ve just racially attacked your most important group of customers. And then imagine that, rather than dumping this partner, you instead flip-flop around the issue and end up not only looking rather foolish, but do yourself and your reputation a fair amount of harm in the process.

If you work at Damac, you don’t need to imagine any of the above. The Dubai-headquartered real estate developer, which counts Donald Trump as one of its business partners, has been flip-flopping since Trump came out with a comment on the 7th of December that there should be a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims” entering the United States. This statement, which was made following the deadly shootings in California’s San Bernardino, weren’t the first Trump had made about Muslims. He had previously that he was in favour of shutting down American mosques and establishing a database for all Muslims living in the US or giving them a form of special identification that noted their religion.

Damac’s relationship with Trump International includes branding for two Trump-branded gold courses and a collection luxury villas at the developer’s Akoya project in Dubai. I don’t know the full extent of the relationship, but local newspaper 7DAYS claimed that, in addition to the licensing fees that Damac would have to pay to Trump for the use of his name and image, Trump himself had invested in the project.

Following the controversy around Trump’s latest Muslim statements, Damac put out a statement that could be called, at best, avoiding the issue.

Damac Properties senior vice president Niall McLoughlin told 7DAYS in a statement: “We would like to stress that our agreement is with the Trump Organisation as one of the premium golf course operators in the world and as such we would not comment further on Mr Trump’s personal or political agenda, nor comment on the internal American political debate scene.”

Instead of publicly taking Trump to task and distancing the company from his statements, Damac took a different approach. A couple of days after the outcry, on the 10th of December Damac took Donald Trump down – his image and name that is, from their developments. To quote from 7DAYS.

Hoardings that previously carried photos of the billionaire businessman advertising Damac’s Trump-branded golf course and luxury villas stood bare on Umm Suquiem Road on Thursday, right at the entrance to the development.

All well and good you may think – Damac quietly rebranded their development and distanced themselves from Trump. However, in a further twist, Trump’s name was back on billboards two days later, on the 12th of December. Here’s how the English-daily Khaleej Times put it:

On Friday, a prominent advertising billboard showing Trump golfing that had stood at the Akoya development, where the housing and one of the golf courses is being built, was gone. All that remained of it was the board’s brown wooden background. Another billboard declaring the development “The Beverly Hills of Dubai” still stood nearby.

Trump’s name also appeared to have been pulled off one sign greeting visitors to the complex. The sign, outside a sales office at the site, originally had Trump’s name in lettering on a stone wall. But on Friday the letters were littering the ground in front of it.

A second, similar sign facing a major road was intact with Trump’s name on it. Earlier in the week, that sign had been taken down but by Friday, it was back in place.

“The exterior signage at Trump International Golf Club, Dubai was temporarily removed on Tuesday for a short period of time, however as of last night, the signage is back up and fully intact,” the Trump Organization said in a statement to The Associated Press on Friday.

Also, the Damac webpage dedicated to the Trump PRVT gated community, which is part of the development, appeared to have been removed, leading only to a “not found” page.

Since the development is still under construction, the removal of the branding with Trump’s name and image seemed to be largely symbolic. It was not known if it signaled Damac will outright break the licensing contract.

Damac Properties has declined to comment on the removal of Trump’s name and billboard from the property. It earlier said it “would not comment further on Mr. Trump’s personal or political agenda, nor comment on the internal American political debate scene.”

To change the issue, Damac has switched tactic. Instead of talking politics, the developer announced that it would guarantee rental returns for those buying in its Akoya (Trump-branded) project. The National broke the story last week.

Damac Properties, the developer caught in a storm over its partnership with the controversial US presidential hopeful Donald Trump, is offering lucrative rental returns on some of its properties to lure investors.

Damac, which said it would stick with Trump International despite his anti-Muslim tirade, is providing a 24 per cent rental guarantee on selected units in Dubai, including the Akoya project associated with the billionaire, the developer said in a statement.

Owners of selected properties will be able to secure an eight per cent annual return in the first three years after handover.

The company was offering these returns because it believes the Dubai property market is “set for stable growth in the medium term”, Damac said. “We have seen quite a bit of scaremongering in the market in recent months, which can have a detrimental effect on sentiment in the market,” said Niall McLoughlin, the senior vice president at Damac. “By providing such a high, tax-free offering on our units, we are putting our head above the rest and underwriting any fluctuations that may occur down the line.”

Reputational issues become even more important for companies which are listed, as Damac is. Damac’s shares initially fell 15 percent following the muted response. Investors may also not have appreciated the rental guarantee initiative, as you can see from the share price chart below.

Damac's share price fell after the initial outcry. The share price has also fallen following Damac's attempts to repair the reputational damage through the rental incentive promise.

Damac’s share price fell after the initial outcry. The share price has also fallen following Damac’s attempts to repair the reputational damage through the rental incentive promise.

While I don’t know the relationship between the two, would Damac have been wiser to have taken an initial hit and exited the contract with Trump rather than flip-flopping on the issue, drawing it out and drawing more attention to the brand association? Add in the costs with guaranteeing rental returns in addition to the share drop, and this crisis will prove costly both in the short as well as the long-term. To me, the media and the company’s shareholders the answer about whether or not to dump Trump – and take a short term hit through contractual obligations but save the company’s reputation and keep shareholders and customers happy – seems fairly obvious.

When should brands step away from a toxic celebrity – the Trump effect

The Trump is known for his outspoken views, but what damage have his latest rants done to brands in the Gulf?

The Trump is known for his outspoken views, but what damage have his latest rants done to brands in the Gulf?

I know you’re tired of hearing about Donald Trump. Everywhere I look on the internet and social media, all I see is Trump, Trump, Trump… I am sorry to write about this man again, and give him yet more coverage that he doesn’t deserve, but this time I’m focusing on brands and what they do when their engagements with celebrities turn toxic.

As everyone with an internet connection knows, Donald Trump said something very stupid about stopping Muslims from entering the US. Here’s the Trump in action below.

The problem for Donald, or should I say the brands that are associated with him, is that he has business interests in the Muslim world, including here in the Gulf. Dubai-headquartered real estate brand Damac has been working with Trump for several years, and has a number of golf courses and other developments named after Trump and his family. Dubai’s Landmark Group sells Trump Home-branded products across the Gulf in its Lifestyle shops. While the Al Tayer Group opened two Trump Home by Dorya galleries in the UAE in June.

The response to Trump’s comments about banning Muslims from the US has drawn different reactions from these three entities. Damac was the first to comment, with the company’s Senior VP for Comms saying effectively the Trump brand is distinct from the man himself.

“We would like to stress that our agreement is with the Trump Organisation as one of the premium golf course operators in the world and as such we would not comment further on Mr. Trump’s personal or political agenda, nor comment on the internal American political debate scene,” said Niall McLoughlin.

Al-Tayer shared its own views with the Dubai media’s 7Days paper, with the following statement: “The statement Mr Trump made on the campaign trail is unfortunate. Given his diverse business interests in the region, we hope that he will reconsider this stand.”

Most interestingly, Landmark Group has decided to drop the Trump range of products from its stores. Landmark works with another celebrity who has a love/hate relationship with the public. Bollywood star Salman Khan was convicted of manslaughter earlier this year back in his home country of India, and yet he is still a brand ambassador for one of Landmark’s retail brands.

“In light of the recent statements made by the presidential candidate in the U.S. media, we have suspended sale of all products from the Trump Home decor range,” Lifestyle CEO Sachin Mundhwa said in an email to media outlets including the UK’s Independent.

Will Damac and Al-Tayer follow Landmark’s example? Or will they stick out the ensuing furor? When does a celebrity engagement do more harm than good? With Trump unlikely to apologize for his comments this can only get messier for those companies which are still associated with the Trump.