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

Trump-Merck-CEO

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.

Lessons on media relations and transparency from the World Government Summit

Dubai's World Government Summit has become a global event for government employees and is closely followed by the media (image source: Trade Arabia)

Dubai’s World Government Summit has become a global event for government employees and is closely followed by the media (image source: Trade Arabia)

This month was host to another mega event in Dubai, the World Government Summit. The conference, which even hosted an address by President Obama, aims to become the leading platform for governments, the private sector and the public to learn about and collaborate together for innovation in government.

Two areas caught my eye. The first was that of media relations. There’s been a good deal of talk about how the communications industry is changing and media relations will become less important. That isn’t the case, at least for the vast majority of us who spend most of our day pitching, preparing for media interviews, and following up.

There was a sizable media presence at the event, which is testament to the World Government Summit’s global reach. However, while there were dozens of international journalists – whose flights and accommodation were paid for – the story for the local journalists I knew was different. Few Dubai-based media were reached out to except by email, with no phone calls. And some didn’t receive an email to arrange for registration. One journalist I talked to spoke about his frustration on having to chase the agency to get his registration sorted out. He was particularly peeved by a lack of support or empathy from the agency about the issue, and not only him but his whole team being missed out. As he told me, ‘a sorry would have gone a long way when it comes to good will.’

While I understand the urge to engage globally – after all, the event is now the World Government Summit – not involving local media is a idea that will only sour the agency’s relationship with the local journalists in the short to medium term; and trust me, you don’t want to deal with an aggrieved journalist, let alone put them in front of a client. Plus, in today’s digital age, I don’t buy this concept of local and global media. Everything is online, and much of it is curated by services such as Google News. It’s now a case of getting that content seen by the relevant stakeholder, which can be done through increasing paid reach or seeding the content on other sites.

Transparency and its impact on credibility

The second insight is around the inaugural “World’s Best Minister” Award. According to the summit’s website, the “World’s Best Minister” Award was “thoroughly and independently managed by Thomson Reuters where the search for the nominees is conducted according to the established criteria”.

To quote from the Summit’s website, details on the criteria and judging panel are below:

The criteria of the Award were set by the organizer of the World Government Summit. The criteria for selecting the candidates WAs based on various financial and non-financial metrics, and their improvement over time. These are based on data disclosed by the World Bank, United Nations, Legatum institution and various other well known resources that provide data and statistics on economic information, social metrics and government services.

The primary focus for 2016 has been on initiatives in the healthcare, education, social and environmental services.

The judging panel consists of six judges from various backgrounds, who provide different perspectives on the candidates based on their experience, expertise and insights. They include senior executives from the World Bank, OECD, Ernst & Young, Strategy & Co and the Abraaj Group on their personal capacity.

From an initial selection of 100 ministers, the winner turned out to be Greg Hunt, Australia’s environment minister. This choice has proved to be highly controversial, particularly in Australia where the Australian government has been criticized for its approach to green issues.

My focus however is the response from Thomson Reuters who, I feel, have sought to distance themselves from the choice of the winner. To quote from the Guardian.

But Thomson Reuters said it was “not correct” to say that the company initiated the award or were responsible for designing the selection process.

“Thomson Reuters was solely responsible for assisting in the administration of the award, to a set of criteria approved by the World Government Summit organisers,” said Tarek Fleihan, head of corporate communications for the financial information company in the Middle East, Africa and Russia.

Transparency is key to credibility. And whilst I do love the idea of awarding government officials who innovate on behalf of their citizens, the controversial choice and the ensuing contradictions surrounding the process hasn’t helped to make the award as credible as it should be.

What are your thoughts? Were you at the event? I’d love to hear your views on these two points.

What does Authenticity mean in the Gulf?

Are you being authentic? And what does authenticity mean to us in the Gulf?

Are you being authentic? And what does authenticity mean to us in the Gulf?

The notion of authenticity, that feeling of genuineness, has long been an issue to us communicators. The theory goes that the more authentic we (or our clients) are, the more people will believe us and like us. Even the use of the word authentic has grown; in the US, the word’s use has grown 74.5% since 2012 according to the Holmes Report, to 8,069 press releases and 20,471 media stories.

Well, you’d think that being in a world where everything is online it’d be harder than ever to fake it. Well, an Australian teen with over half a million followers on Instagram has put the sword to that theory. Here’s an excerpt from The Guardian on Essena O’Neill and how she strived to be perfect online:

An Australian teenager with more than half a million followers on Instagram has quit the platform, describing it as “contrived perfection made to get attention”, and called for others to quit social media – perhaps with help from her new website.

Essena O’Neill, 18, said she was able to make an income from marketing products to her 612,000 followers on Instagram – “$2000AUD a post EASY”. But her dramatic rejection of social media celebrity has won her praise.

On 27 October she deleted more than 2,000 pictures “that served no real purpose other than self-promotion”, and dramatically edited the captions to the remaining 96 posts in a bid to to reveal the manipulation, mundanity, and even insecurity behind them.

At a recent event I was chairing, one of the speakers told an anecdote about a Saudi youngster who claimed to be an entrepreneur, partly because it is the popular thing to do and also because he was unemployed. The experience also reminded me of comments left on a popular website about two local entrepreneurs who have set up their own business. Three of the comments were negative, and called into question the ‘authenticity’ of the two young gentlemen. One person wrote, “I have also noticed many so called ‘Entrepreneurs’ are only ‘Instagram-perneurs'”.

The question then comes to mind – who is being genuine and how can we tell if they’re genuine? Will the media challenge people on their achievements? Will the public call out these people? We live in a region where social media is all pervasive and yet, due to various barriers such as culture, language and traditions, it can be truly difficult to know if someone is being genuine or not. For me, the best way to understand the true meaning of authenticity is to grasp its meaning – one who does things himself/herself.

What are your thoughts on authenticity and the Gulf? Do people live to a certain image, or are they true to themselves? And what does this mean for how we communicate? I’d love to hear your thoughts on the issue.

Old News, New News: The strange tale of how the ten-year old drowning daughter story was reported as recent news

The Daily Mail was one of several UK-based publications to fail to fact-check the original story which was published in Emirates 24/7

The Daily Mail was one of several UK-based publications to fail to fact-check the original story which was published in Emirates 24/7

One could be forgiven for thinking it’s funny news season here in the Gulf. One story from Dubai’s shores went global this week, the tale of how an Asian father who prevented Dubai lifeguards from saving his drowning daughter, claiming she would be dishonoured if she was touched by strange men, has been arrested and prosecuted by authorities after his actions led to the death of the 20-year-old girl.

The piece was reported by the UAE’s English-language portal Arabian Business, after a post in the English daily Emirates 24/7. The story, a harrowing tale of how a young woman drowned because her father would not let the male lifeguards touch her, made headlines around the world, and was carried by the UK’s the Daily Mail, the Telegraph, the Metro and Sky News. Here’s the piece from Arabian Business.

An Asian father who prevented Dubai lifeguards from saving his drowning daughter, claiming she would be dishonoured if she was touched by strange men, has been arrested and prosecuted by authorities after his actions led to the death of the 20-year-old girl, Emirates 24/7 reported.

“The Asian father took his wife and kids to the beach for picnic and fun. The kids were swimming in the beach when suddenly, the 20-year-old girl started drowning and screaming for help,” Lt. Col Ahmed Burqibah, Deputy Director of Dubai Police’s Search and Rescue Department, told the website as he recounted the incident, which took place on a Dubai public beach.

“Two rescue men were at the beach, and they rushed to help the girl…. The father was a tall and strong man. He started pulling and preventing the rescue men and got violent with them. He told them that he prefers his daughter being dead than being touched by a strange man.”

“This is one of the incidents which I cannot forget. It shocked me and many others who were involved in the case,” he added.

The actions of the father resulted in the death of the young woman. The father was subsequently arrested for preventing the lifeguards from doing their job and aiding in the death of his daughter.

“He was prosecuted and sued by the concerned authorities,” Lt. Col. Burqibah confirmed.

Unfortunately, whoever picked up the piece from Emirates 24/7 didn’t see one small but pertinent piece of information from the original story.

Speaking to Emirates 24|7, Lt. Col Ahmed Burqibah, Deputy Director of Dubai Police’s Search and Rescue Department, recounting some of the worst incidents he had encountered in his tenure, said that this incident took place at a beach in Dubai.

The mistake was first picked up by the Guardian’s Media Monkey blog. The blog’s writer delighted in having a dig at the publications which had failed to fact check and republish the story as if it were a recent event.

When news editors across the land facing a slow news day on Monday saw the story of a father who let his daughter drown in Dubai because he “didn’t want strange men touching her”, they surely couldn’t believe their luck.

The Mail, Telegraph, Metro and even Sky News all jumped on the story, which came via Agence France Press.

However, Monkey is told that classifying the story as “news” might be stretching it a little.

Apparently the article – which originated on the website Emirates 24/7 – was from an interview in which lifeguards were asked to recount the strangest things that had happened to them. As someone who bothered to check out where it came from tells Monkey: “They mentioned this case of the Asian man who prevented his daughter’s rescue, but, and here’s the catch – it was from 1996.”

Perhaps it’s a case of any old news will do … at least when there isn’t much news at all.

The Gulf’s media is often criticized for not getting the facts right or forgetting to fact-check. But, it seems that even media outlets which are supposed to operate to a different standard can often fail to properly do their homework in the chase for a story which confirms their stereotypes of the region.

I’m now waiting for some journalist looking for a heart-wrenching scoop to pick up on the Cops save boy… villagers kill him with ‘love’ piece, again from Emirates2 4/7.

PS I’m not even going to go into the piece written by Arabian Business which poses the question ‘Does Dubai need more female lifeguards, in light of recent beach tragedy?’ How is this still online?

Not the headline one hopes for – Migrant workers, ‘trespassing’, and Qatar’s BBC own goal

A communicator’s job (or part of at the very least) is to generate headlines. Preferably favorable headlines. But even the best of intentions can often come undone.

It’s an understatement to say that Qatar has been under the microscope recently. The country, with a population of just over a million (both nationals and expats) and hundreds of billions of dollars of gas reserves, has often strived to make its mark on the global stage. One such project is the news station Al-Jazeera, which has revolutionized media in the Middle East and beyond.

Qatar’s World Cup bid and subsequent win hasn’t been the success the country may have hoped for however. Ever since Qatar was awarded the 2022 World Cup by FIFA, it has been subject to criticism by international NGOs about a host of issues ranging from the rights of homosexuals to labor rights.

The biggest concern has been the living conditions of low-income workers, specifically those people who are building the infrastructure for the World Cup.

To their credit (or maybe because there’s little other choice afforded to them), the Qatari government has tried to tackle allegations of poor treatment of migrant workers head on. They have announced new legislation to penalize companies who do not pay workers on time and an amendment to the national labor law to facilitate the payment of workers through direct bank deposits.

Qatar has also been keen to promote the new migrant labor villages that the government has built. As part of its media efforts, the country’s Labor Ministry invited global media last week to view this new accomodation and meet the country’s Labor Minister to talk about Qatar’s push to promote labor rights.

However, things didn’t go quite as expected. I’ll quote from the Guardian below.

A four-strong BBC crew had been invited by the prime minister’s office on an official tour designed to show off new accommodation for migrant labourers, but were arrested by the security services while trying to gather additional material. They were interrogated and jailed for two days, before being released without charge.

The visit was part of a public relations drive, partly overseen by London-based agency Portland, in the wake of an international outcry over the slave-like conditions for workers exposed by a Guardian investigation in September 2013.

Rather than the story being the improvements in living conditions for Qatar’s migrant workers, the headline on the BBC (which was carried across the globe) was BBC team arrested, and held for several days.

It went from bad to worse for Qatar when Qatar’s communications chief explained that the BBC team had been arrested for ‘trespassing’. Again, to quote from The Guardian.

The Qatari government’s head of communications, Saif al-Thani, said the BBC crew were arrested after departing from an official tour. He said: “We gave the reporters free rein to interview whomever they chose and to roam unaccompanied in the labour villages.

“Perhaps anticipating that the government would not provide this sort of access, the BBC crew decided to do their own site visits and interviews in the days leading up to the planned tour. In doing so, they trespassed on private property, which is against the law in Qatar just as it is in most countries. Security forces were called and the BBC crew was detained.”

The challenge organizations often face is how to ensure that the same message is conveyed across the entirety of the organization. It’s obvious that in Qatar there were differences of opinion which led to the BBC crew being tailed by the security forces once they’d entered the country and to their arrest while doing their job.

The question now for Qatar is how do they go on from here and get the message right, across all of the country’s government and leadership? The media scrutiny is only going to get even more intense, the closer we get to the 2022 World Cup. I’ll continue to watch this story and how it unfolds in the media.

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