We certainly have very different world views. She worked in Donald Trump’s White House. I served in the one Barack Obama led. Yet, crises sometimes help those with very different backgrounds and beliefs find common ground.
Alyssa Farah, who was President Trump’s director of communication, knows a lot about crisis management. She had to navigate a few during 3.5 years in the West Wing. Recently, we chatted about lessons learned from what were undoubtedly some of the most intense interactions any media relations team ever experienced. Several are relevant as companies prepare for, and respond to, today’s polarized political climate.
The first recommendation she makes is about authenticity. Corporate leaders are feeling an enormous amount of political and social pressure to take public stands on a range of hot-button issues. For some, it can feel very uncomfortable. As communication advisors, we need to help leaders, whether in the Oval Office or the corner office, find the right message for the moment [see Crisis Interview, p. 6].
We are seeing a lot of executives and the businesses they run make carbon copies of social stands or programs that other companies use. This can be a very risky strategy, Farah warns. One, it exposes you to potential attacks as activists discover inconsistencies with what you’ve said or done previously (or not said or not done). Second, it is much harder to implement and show progress on something that does not align easily with your company’s goals, values and operations.
Farah likes the middle ground: Avoid getting pulled too far in either direction on a social issue. She recommends targeting “the largest swath of [your stakeholders] …who are not hyper-partisan, only marginally want to engage in politics, and who would like to see our country unify and work toward common good.”
It is an important reminder from an unlikely source. Companies can play a critical role in building bridges across at least some of our nation’s deep, difficult divides. So, consider Farah’s suggestion the next time you’re evaluating how best to engage on a challenging issue. There certainly will be times when a stand is needed. But, perhaps the best position you can take is in the middle, using your team and tools to help bring people together.
Brett Bruen teaches crisis at Georgetown University and served as President Obama’s director of global engagement. He is president of the Global Situation Room.