Tillerson Disses the Boss: What the Morale Cleanup Might Look Like

Let’s start with a question for PR practitioners: How would you, as the person charged with building and maintaining your brand’s reputation and internal morale, deal with a senior official’s derogatory comment about the CEO that eventually goes public?

Before you answer, consider one of today's top news stories. This morning, NBC News reported Secretary of State Rex Tillerson referred to President Donald Trump as a "moron" after a July 20 meeting at the Pentagon. Tillerson apparently made the remark in front of members of the president’s national security team and cabinet.

It's not as if the relationship between the president and his secretary of state was sanguine. During the summer there were rumors of a rift between Tillerson and Trump. Those stories led one to believe the former ExxonMobil chief was not long for his position in the administration. This morning, of course, NBC News seems to have put meat on the bones of those rumors.

NBC also reported this morning that Tillerson was near resigning during the summer. Vice President Mike Pence talked him off the ledge, the report says. NBC claims its report is based on interviews with "a dozen current and former senior administration officials...as well as others who are close to the president."

After the story broke this morning, the State Department denied the "moron" comment. Tillerson never considered resigning this summer, State said. As of this writing, the White House has yet to comment, although President Trump late this morning blasted the NBC report as fake news [see update at the bottom of this post].

There were bumps in the Tillerson-Trump collaboration recently. Last week Tillerson reiterated the importance of diplomatic overtures to North Korea; the president doused such talk, tweeting Oct. 1, “I told Rex Tillerson, our wonderful Secretary of State, that he is wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man...Save your energy Rex, we'll do what has to be done!"

This difference in point of view on North Korea resulted in the White House having to say just 3 days ago that the president believes in Tillerson. The national security implications of such public differences could be enormous.

Let's go back to our initial question: How would you, as the person charged with building and maintaining your brand’s reputation and morale, deal with a senior official’s derogatory comment about the CEO that eventually goes public?

Let's assume that the person who made the comment leaves the organization. The question for communicators then is what message do you craft for those who’ve remained at the company? In addition, what message do you relay to the public and other stakeholders? How do you stanch damage to the company’s reputation and morale?

A derogatory comment from a senior official such as Tillerson must be taken seriously. Despite it being a story that’s apparently months old, Tillerson’s senior position and apparent access to the president give his comment gravitas. White House communicators will need to address it.

Such a comment can mean many things, of course: The person who uttered it may be frustrated and wants to resign or be fired. Communicators can explain away the comment that way fairly easily: The person who made the comment is a malcontent and wanted out. Says Andy Gilman, president & CEO, CommCore Consulting Group, "Once an employee leaves the company, negative comments might be valid, but they also might be either disparagement or sour grapes."

Should the person who made the comment leave the organization there's a school of thought that says you drop the whole affair. "We rarely recommend public spats with former employees. The employer invariably comes out as the loser," Gilman says. Bottom line for Gilman: "Take the high ground about...comments unless facts, perception and long-term reputation require you to respond."

On the other hand, when a comment is made about the CEO you need to call the employee into your office and discuss it, Gilman says. You should defend the CEO, he says, "but avoid getting into a verbal sparring contest on social media...use common sense...pick your battles wisely."

Says APCO Worldwide's Michael Appel, "Internally...a company will want to engage proactively to offer context, answer questions and reaffirm the...commitment to respecting one another."

Should the departed employee divulge operational issues, a response likely is needed, Appel, associate director of crisis communications & management at APCO, says. "Communicators and leadership should be engaging with internal audiences—one-on-one, in town halls, over email, as appropriate—to address any concerns in a proactive and transparent manner."

“Companies seldom have much time to react to public employee statements but communicators should pause, at least briefly, to understand a few things - whether the employee is in good standing with the company, the nature and reach of their comment, the context in which it was made and the likely impact to the CEO’s or company’s reputation," says Sarah Clayton, EVP, employee engagement & change management, at Weber Shandwick.

She adds, "When a response is warranted, make clear that the individual’s comment was their own and is not reflective of the company’s position. Companies should also communicate internally to reiterate their core values and expected behaviors...."

What if the senior official who made the comment remains with the company? In that case communicators can claim the comment is bogus. In the Tillerson case, the White House can say the story was from July and no names have been attached to the source.

While all that is true, a comment like Tillerson’s can result in a deeper wound that’s not explained away easily. The comment can signal a serious lack of trust in the company’s leader that permeates the C-suite.

It seems to us that in these cases communicators will want to squelch such sentiment quickly and express confidence in the CEO. This can be done in internal meetings should the comment remain within the company.

In the Tillerson case, of course, a public response seems in order. Failure to address the comment could cripple morale within the company; externally it could destroy a brand's public confidence.

Depending on what Tillerson’s immediate employment plans are, look for the White House to enact some variation of the above suggestions.

Update 12:28pm ET: In a news conference late this morning, Secretary Tillerson refused to address directly the moron comment. Tillerson said he had not considered resigning during the summer, so VP Pence never persuaded him to remain at Foggy Bottom. During the news conference Tillerson said Trump was "smart...."

In a tweet before the news conference, the president blasted the NBC report: "NBC news is  and more dishonest than even CNN. They are a disgrace to good reporting. No wonder their news ratings are way down!"

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