It’s obviously foolhardy to try to glean any lessons from Donald Trump’s tweets at the best of times, never mind when the U.S. president is in increasingly dire legal trouble. It’s pretty clear, from a communications perspective, that tweeting out an all-caps WITCH HUNT, as he did this week and countless other times, isn’t helpful.
But on a smaller scale, there’s no question companies in the hot seat often do what the U.S. president has been doing in recent days and Saudi Arabia has done since Jamal Khashoggi’s murder: they change their stories as the writing on the wall comes into sharper focus and they realize their original explanation is almost laughably improbable.
Trump’s explanations on whether and what he instructed his onetime lawyer, Michael Cohen, to do about his extra-marital affairs and the threats they posed to his candidacy are shifting all the time.
Since the spring, Trump has careened from denying any knowledge of payments to women who claim they were involved with him to now acknowledging hush-money settlements.
At one point, he admitted Cohen represented him in the “crazy Stormy Daniels deal.” He also called the payments to women “very common among celebrities and people of wealth,” adding it was a “private agreement.”
His story this week? A combination of arguing that the payments weren’t illegal, but also a denial that he directed Cohen to pay off the women. He added the lawyer should have known better than to buy their silence.
Cohen, meantime, who was sentenced to three years in prison this week for campaign finance violations, insists the payments were made at Trump’s behest to fend off damage to his White House aspirations. It’s all put an isolated Trump in danger of impeachment, likely explaining his increasingly panic-stricken tweets.
There are few companies or institutions operating under the glare of the international spotlight the way Trump and Saudi Arabia are right now. Yet it certainly does happen, as Johnson & Johnson, Volkswagen, Uber and other companies can attest. Closer to home, the continuing fallout from the sexual assault allegations at Toronto’s St. Michael’s College shows that shifting explanations and a communications strategy in disarray can and will lead to long-term if not permanent damage to an organization’s reputation and bottom line.
So what’s to be learned by Trump’s penchant for constantly changing his story?
Simply put: Don’t.
Be as forthcoming and honest as possible when your company finds itself in a crisis situation. The best way to do that is to have a crisis communications plan in place long before you ever need one. Think of it like insurance coverage. Taking proactive steps that ensure rapid response is critical for mitigating any reputational damage from a potential crisis. Not being prepared almost guarantees delays that the public will ultimately perceive as a sign your organization is hiding something.
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