One Change Management Principle Trump Skipped in the Comey Firing


President Trump's dismissal of James Comey as director of the FBI May 9 would have been highly controversial no matter how it happened. But how to work within a scenario like that to ameliorate stakeholder dissatisfaction is a major facet of what we as communicators should practice—and it's a facet that seems to have been neglected by the Trump administration's communications arm.

Comey learned of his firing by President Trump when he saw it reported on television while speaking to FBI employees in Los Angeles. A letter of dismissal had been conveyed to FBI headquarters in Washington, D.C., but that was of little use to Comey. For an administration representative not to have met with Comey in person, or at least to have spoken to him over the phone or waited for confirmation that he had seen a copy of the letter of dismissal, betokens significant disrespect, not only in the eyes of the public, but in the eyes of FBI employees as well. According to a New York Times report, "One senior FBI official said that the president had severely damaged his standing among agents, many of whom are conservative and supported Mr. Trump as a candidate. Agents were angered by the way Mr. Trump fired Mr. Comey."

Trump may have seen Comey as disposable and wanted him gone, but more care could have been taken by the president to protect his reputation with FBI employees and the larger intelligence community. If you're a professional communicator, keep this in mind when it comes to your personnel decisions and how they are delivered: How will your tact or indelicacy reverberate among those you rely on after the issue at hand is settled?

A separate New York Times piece reports that "three senior White House officials conceded that [the] public explanation [of the firing] was an unmitigated mess, blaming the communications shop, with one describing it as the 'weakest' element of the West Wing." This case is an important lesson that internal communications efforts, or lack thereof, have as large an effect on your reputation as a practitioner as what you say to your public audience.