FREEPORT, MAINE: President-elect Trump targeted L.L. Bean in a tweet Thursday morning not to bully or ridicule, but to praise, leaving PR pros to wonder how companies should respond.
The family company’s conundrum stemmed from the political activities of Linda Bean, the granddaughter of founder Leon Leonwood Bean, who serves on the 10-person board of directors at the clothing and outdoor recreation company.
Thank you to Linda Bean of L.L.Bean for your great support and courage. People will support you even more now. Buy L.L.Bean. @LBPerfectMaine— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 12, 2017
It was revealed the heiress had donated money to a pro-Trump Super PAC, which kick-started calls by #GrabYourWallet, an anti-Trump group, for consumers to consider boycotting the company.
L.L. Bean did not respond to an emailed request for comment, but did post a statement on Facebook emphasizing that the political activities of Linda Bean do not reflect the larger company.
Lee Carter, president of maslansky + partners and frequent Fox News contributor, approved of this tactic: "This will pass," she said in an emailed statement. "They are separating the granddaughter from L.L. Bean; the individual from the company."
Over the past few months, companies from different sectors, from Boeing to GM, Carrier to New Balance, have had their brands tainted by association with Trump, whether in the form of a hostile attack from the president-elect or praise.
Richard Levick, CEO and founder of Levick, says companies need to rip up the traditional playbook in an age where the most powerful man in the world can wipe out billions in market value with a single tweet. He says they must recognize their political and technological context and modernize how they communicate.
"Trump has become what financial analysts call an axe — that is, the ability to control stock value on command," Levick said. "That’s not a power you want in the U.S. president - companies are not prepared for this. They have to burn their crisis plans because that requires looking them up and responding whereas tweets move value within minutes or hours."
"L.L. Bean and GM need totally different strategies," said Carter. "So if you’re talking jobs, manufacturing, pharma pricing, healthcare, trade — you better have a communications strategy ready to go. And that strategy should tie to a broarder narrative about what you bring to the economy and to him [Trump]."
Levick said the best L.L. Bean can hope for from the story is a quick death, adding the brand should track how it trends and how customers talk about it.
"The best response is de minimis. L.L. Bean doesn’t want to alienate customers who may be pro-Trump or those who are green-oriented. They fish in both ponds."
Levick pointed to the broader and more troubling narrative of the politicization of nearly everything in the country.
"That merger of entertainment, democracy, and capitalism is not helpful for companies," he said. "These are the unintended, or intended, consequences of a president who decides to tweet how he feels and doesn’t seem inhibited by his frontal lobe."
Alan Sexton, Burson-Marsteller’s U.S. corporate chair and New York market leader, highlighted the virtue of speed in a social world.
"The most important thing is to not be surprised," he said via email. "Companies and CEOs should assess their vulnerabilities – now – to understand where they could have issues. Then, it’s critical to establish your narrative and proof points. That process has to happen before the Tweet does. You’re only going to get 140 characters and 60 minutes to respond. Readiness, brevity and speed have never been more important."
Jim Moorhead, an APCO senior counselor, urges all companies to "look at their soft spots and business issues" that could incite a Twitter attack from the president.
"Any company that falls into the spotlight has to remind its customers of its strengths, demonstrate it’s a solid corporate citizen, valuable community member, and fair employer, among other things," Moorhead said. "The first important step for a company is to know where they face trouble and tell a positive narrative supported by allies. They have to operate with a wide field of vision."
Even the once-private political activities of executives must be examined, Moorhead said, given the hyper-transparency of today’s society.
"Because of Citizens United and its progeny, companies have obtained First Amendment rights, but now companies are realizing there is First Amendment responsibility," Levick said.
Flattery as a strategy
"At some point one company will rise above all others as the focal point of the anti-Trump or pro-Trump movements," Levick said. "You don’t want to be that company."
Kellogg, GrubHub, and Yuengling all recently felt the impact of a Trump association in a highly politicized environment, and each dealt with the crisis in their own way. Levick highlighted Kellogg’s response and how it seemed to dip out of view of the public’s crosshairs.
He also cited Chrysler’s announcement it would invest $1 billion in Michigan and Ohio, as well as hundreds of jobs, as an example of a company trying to preempt Trump, explaining that, while that can pay off in the short term, it doesn’t mean Chrysler won’t be a target in the future.
Levick added that Mexico has too many benefits as a manufacturing location for a company to gloss over the possibility of moving business there.
"What he’s going to do? Is he going to attack every company that doesn’t make a smart business decision?" he said. "Boards are looking at how to respond."
The smart strategy some companies have taken is genuflecting, Levick said. It’s the one he and his agency have been recommending.
"That means going to the president-elect on bended knee and giving him the victory lap," Levick said. "That’s what he demands. Give it to him now because your first and foremost responsibility is shareholder value."
When Trump tweeted out costs for a new fleet of Boeing-manufactured Air Force Ones were "out of control … cancel order," Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg talked to the president-elect over the phone to "smooth things over" mere hours later, according to The Washington Post.
Two weeks later, Muilenburg met with Trump at his Mar-A-Lago estate in person, the Post reported.
After their meeting, Muilenburg spoke to the media about his "terrific conversation" with Trump.
Despite the confrontational and strong position he publicly takes, Trump finds himself in a vulnerable position. The public still wants to see his tax returns. This week’s leaked dossier, potentially full of damning but unverified allegations, drew huge laughs and greater scrutiny around his legitimacy. His favorability rating comes up woefully short against his predecessors when they were preparing to take office.
"Washington can sense weakness and as soon as they do, he will find greater hostility and his tweets will have less power," Levick said. "There is going to come a time when a company realizes, and they will calculate that standing up and opposing the president has more benefit for shareholders and customers than kowtowing. It will probably be a b2c tech company that does it first. That will bring to an end ‘the genuflect’ and companies will realize the emperor has no clothes and it’s time to do the reverse."