Trump’s CEOs: Why they felt having a dialogue was better than taking a moral stand

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The CEO of Merck, Kenneth Frazier, was the first executive to quit President Trump’s business councils after the events of last week (Photo: Evan Vucci, AP)

For a moment, you could hear the sighs of relief in boardrooms across America. The CEOs of blue chip firms such as General Motors, IBM, Johnson & Johnson and PepsiCo are no longer under the microscope for their response, or lack of, to the happenings in Charlottesville, Virginia last week. These executives were part of President Trump’s business advisory groups. To quote more on the story for those who haven’t been following the news, here’s the report from The Guardian:

Donald Trump was forced to disband two White House business councils that were disintegrating around him on Wednesday in the wake of his controversial remarks about the weekend violence in Charlottesville.

The Strategic and Policy Forum and the White House Manufacturing Jobs Initiative were both dissolved as corporate leaders continued to resign.

Trump claimed in a tweet that this was his decision, writing: “Rather than putting pressure on the businesspeople of the Manufacturing Council & Strategy & Policy Forum, I am ending both. Thank you all!”

The collapse of the advisory bodies follows seven different corporate leaders stepping down from the two councils in recent days including the CEOs of both Campbell’s Soup and 3M on Wednesday.

Trump had previously stated that resignations from both panels were of no consequence. “For every CEO that drops out of the Manufacturing Council, I have many to take their place. Grandstanders should not have gone on. JOBS!” he said on Twitter on Tuesday.

Wednesday’s abrupt decision came after Trump confidante Stephen Schwarzman, chief executive of the Blackstone Group, held a conference call for about a dozen members of the strategic and policy forum who decided to abandon it, the New York Times reported. Executives from the manufacturing council had been due to hold a similar call that afternoon, the paper added.

On Wednesday, corporate leaders who sat on the councils raced to denounce Trump’s comments about Charlottesville and to support the dissolution of the advisory bodies. Jamie Dimon, the CEO of JPMorgan and a member of Strategic and Policy Forum, said in a statement: “I strongly disagree with President Trump’s reaction to the events that took place in Charlottesville over the past several days.” He added that he agreed with the council’s decision to disband.

Jeffrey Immelt, the CEO of General Electric, who had previously said on Monday that he would not step down from the manufacturing advisory board, put out a statement on Wednesday afternoon announcing that he had resigned.

Three members of the manufacturing council resigned on Monday after Trump’s initial refusal to condemn the neo-Nazi and white supremacist protesters in Charlottesville by name. Two more followed on Tuesday after Trump defended some of the protestors in a press conference at Trump Tower. The president targeted one of the CEOs, Kenneth Frazier of Merck, in two tweetsincluding one where he mentioned Frazier, the lone African American CEO to step down, by name.

What is most striking about the events of last week was the slow reaction of these executives, particularly from firms who champion diversity and inclusion. Merck’s CEO, who was the first to act, felt compelled to leave the council due to a matter of personal conscience.

This was a minority opinion, and may CEOs were determined to remain, despite the President’s refusal to condemn extremist hate groups. To quote from the Washington Post, some, such as the four government contractors on the president’s advisory councils — Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Harris Corp. and United Technologies — waited until after the councils had disbanded to publicly weigh in, if they did at all. Even then, several stopped short of singling out the president for blaming “both sides” for the violence at a white supremacist rally this past weekend in Charlottesville.

One example was Lockheed Martin, which offered no public statement. The firm’s chief executive Marillyn A. Hewson sent a note to employees on Wednesday, hours before the councils were folded, explaining that she would remain a member because the group’s mission “remains critical to our business,” even as she insisted that “white supremists, neo-Nazis, and other hate groups have no place in our society.”

Other, such as PepsiCo’s Indra Nooyi, personally condemned the violence, but failed to act beyond that.

Michael Dell, chairman and CEO of Dell Technologies was unmoved, with his spokespeople telling the media that: “While we wouldn’t comment on any member’s personal decision, there’s no change in Dell engaging with the Trump administration and governments around the world to share our perspective on policy issues that affect our company, customers and employees.”

So, what was behind the inability to move? Did these executives believe that it was worth remaining to engage with a President whose position on the Charlottesville events has been condemned?

The best comment I read was shared by a communications colleague online (thank you Tim for this share). Corporate language consultant Michael Maslansky stated, “The era of the fence-sitter corporation is over. If you’re silent about an issue, then each side will assume you’re on the wrong side. You end up really having to choose.”

Corporate leaders have to choose; they can no longer sit on the fence. And they have to be prepared for the backlash, particularly from a President who takes anything and everything personally. Corporate leaders also need to act individually, as the CEO of Merck did – it’s telling that the CEOs who stuck it out decided to end the council via a conference call, preferring collective responsibility over personal ownership (which seems to be a habit of corporate life these days).

I hope those leaders who didn’t criticize what happened last week finally do so. Apple’s Tim Cook has been vocal about his position. It’s time to get off the fence people, and not only say what you believe in and advocate for as a company, but turn those words into actions.

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.