What 'America First' means for corporations

As President Donald Trump demonstrates a new attitude to global trade, presaging an era of protectionism and isolationism, businesses must avoid the temptation to stray from their core culture and values.

Powerful forces are altering the landscape for corporations headquartered both in the United States and around the world. 

President Trump proclaims "America First" and is intent on backing this up with protectionist policies.

His proposed withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and plan to renegotiate NAFTA plots an insular path for the U.S. And if this isn’t already upsetting the apple cart for many companies that operate globally, we’re also seeing the potential implications of Brexit continuing to unfold in Europe and a shift in Asia as China looks to be the new global voice for free trade.

This has led to many questions echoing through the hallways of global corporations.

How should they communicate in this new world dynamic and protect their reputations while managing bottom lines? Should they embrace the "America First" philosophy to avoid public shaming? Should they publicly articulate their differences with the administration and aim to win the "war of ideas"? Or should they find a middle ground, sticking to their business plans while being mindful of the landmines that surround them?

Change is not new to the global corporation. Whether it’s new technology, increasing competition, pricing pressures, and other demands by clients and customers, or changing government regulations, executives generally know what to expect and trust the tools they have to address these challenges, while remaining focused on corporate values.

Companies have long benefited from the advice of management consulting firms that counseled them on finding operational efficiencies within their domains. But having a well-thought-out strategic communications program is now more paramount than ever.

This is essential today because "America First" comes from the person holding the most powerful office in the world, dramatically changing its impact and potentially creating a new global trade order.

In combination with the Trump Administration’s loose relationship with facts, the President’s late-night "target tweeting," and his propensity to call out adversaries, business leaders face a situation like never before. It’s also not yet clear where the power center lies, further complicating efforts to lobby for causes that are important to a corporation.

In this environment it is important for companies to remember their ideals. If reducing a company’s environmental footprint is a top priority, it should not be affected by the new priorities of the White House.

If a commitment to diversity is important to a corporate culture, it is vital to remain consistent on that stance no matter who is in power. A company’s values should not be compromised by a dramatic change in government priorities. What can and should adapt, however, is the company’s approach to communicating these priorities.

Ideals refer not only to corporate responsibility, even if corporate responsibility remains as important as ever, given the lack of government leadership in many areas of public good or social support.

They also refer to the company business model. When President Trump aims to tear up trade deals, impose tariffs on certain goods, and punish companies that don’t meet his view of putting "America First," global enterprises headquartered in the U.S. need to consider their positions.

A company’s reputation is integral to continued growth and success. In addition, safeguarding the perceptions and morale of a company’s employee population has never been more important.

Each corporation must weigh every situation independently and consider the outcomes of each choice. There are times for a company to stand up for its values. There are other instances where a wait-and-see approach may better serve the company’s interest. Leaders must consider the impact on the bottom line, corporate culture, and the greater good.

Many companies have simply ceded to public pressure. Some actually change their business plans to align with the priorities of the new leadership. In certain instances this may well be necessary, but in others companies may be sacrificing long-term objectives to avoid public embarrassment in the short term.

Unfortunately, there’s no blueprint to guide business leaders through this uncharted territory.

But here is my advice: Establish your overall objectives, develop strategies to meet those objectives, and implement day-to-day tactics to enable those strategies. Communications programs that stay true to their original purpose, adapting to new challenges, will lead to long-term success.

The culture of American business is strong. The rhetoric of those in power should not redirect your perspective. This sentiment will hold true no matter who resides at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Rob Shapiro is a partner at Portland, heading up the firm’s U.S. b-to-b practice.

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