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Why senior business leaders can't mouth off like Donald Trump

Blog post   •   Mar 20, 2019 08:22 +08

A lot of corporate spokespeople want to voice their opinions candidly like Trump.

A surprising number of media training participants have asked me why they can't just speak their minds like Donald Trump. They admire his courage to say what he thinks. They find it refreshing and authentic to get an unvarnished, warts-and-all view on virtually every topic imaginable, even if they disagree with it.

I have some sympathy for the motivation. As readers and viewers, we are all bored by glib corporate fluff and buzzwords. Our eyes glaze over at canned responses to reasonable questions. The reason politicians have a bad reputation is because in many countries they speak much but say little. In an age where unpolished YouTube videos and inarticulate opinions on social media enjoy wide audience acceptance, anything that sounds choreographed or staged is immediately dismissed as insincere and hollow.

But while I agree with the motivation, it does not follow that you should follow Trump's example. When you were a child, you would have learnt that you can't shoot your mouth off whenever you felt like it. If it isn't acceptable at home or at school, why should it be acceptable when you are a senior business leader representing a brand in the media?

There are also very practical reasons for keeping your personal opinions on the topics du jour to yourself and giving only considered responses.

  1. Your opinion is your company's opinion. Even if you disclaim that your views are your own, the audience will automatically extrapolate them to your brand. In their minds, you are inextricably linked. Like it or not, when Mark Zuckerberg speaks, he speaks for all of Facebook. When Elon Musk speaks, he speaks for all of Tesla. You can protest as much as you like that your personal view is just that. The fact is, the captain determines the direction of the ship. What you say goes. You can't expect your staff, shareholders, customers or regulator to be able to differentiate between your earnest leadership, and your dismissible personal opinion.
  2. You will lose (some) customers. Now, you might dismiss this and say, if customers don't like your opinions they can go buy elsewhere. That might be okay if only a few people desert your product or service in protest. But amplified by social media, this trickle could result in a flood, or even a boycott, in a matter of hours. Before long, even customers who were willing to stick with you will be swayed as they come under pressure for continuing to buy from you. How much of a sales impact are you willing to suffer as the price to pay for voicing your heart-felt opinions? Will you still be so cocky when your sales have cratered 10%, 20%, 30%, 40%?
  3. You offer yourself as a target for your competitors. Voicing strong opinions in the media on topics not relevant to your business gives your enemies lots of scope to attack you publicly. They will ridicule you, pass you off as a crack pot, label you a bigot. By looking squeaky clean in comparison to you, their sales will rise as they watch yours implode.
  4. You will overshoot. You might think it's fine to make disparaging comments to a reporter about Donald Trump. Next minute, you will find it fine to talk down the prospects of a local political candidate. Before you know it, you will be calling a spade a spade in relation to the poor performance of a former staff member. So, why not go the whole hog and express sympathy with left/right wing extremists? Or explain why certain marginalised groups should not receive the same benefits as other citizens? Maybe you secretly harbour homophobic biases. Or you think women shouldn't be permitted to drive. Or that the Nazis weren't so bad. Before long, you start opining about anything and everything. You will lose sight of where to draw the line, and regain it only once you have overstepped it and you have to fix the damage you've done.
  5. You can't change your mind without having to apologise. Remember Trump's Ambassador to the Netherlands, Pete Hoekstra, who infamously said there were Muslim "no-go zones in the Netherlands, and that cars and politicians were being set on fire in the Netherlands". Then denied saying it, calling it fake news. Then denied that he called it fake news. How can we believe anything that guy says? If you throw your full-throated weight behind a point-of-view in the name of speaking candidly, changing your mind becomes virtually impossible when the trend moves against you, or new material information about the issue comes to light. You will forever be tagged as the person who got it wrong. Worse, that local political candidate might win the election and become the minister for your industry; that former staff member might become your boss.
  6. Your opinions don't contribute to your business. It might feel great to be totally honest about your views. But even if you disagree with my first five points, how does it help your business? How will speaking candidly about Duterte's war on drugs, Turkey's war on the press, or Trump's war on women, immigrants and African countries (he called them "shitholes") generate even a single dollar in extra sales? Unless you're a blogger generating advertising revenue from click-baiting readers with outrageous opinions, no one will buy more of your product or service because you think China does/does not have a legitimate claim to the South China Sea; because you think Kashmir belongs to India/Pakistan; because you think Green Book was/was not worthy of an Oscar. But they might buy a whole lot less.

So, when can you be candid, lay bare your opinions and cut the crap?

  1. When educating a reporter about the complexities of your industry, and the urgent steps you are taking to tackle them. Banish "empower", "enable", "partner", "synergise", "catalise", "innovate", "solutions provider", "our people are our best asset" and other bullshit bingo buzzwords and clichés from your vocabulary.
  2. When assessing whether your product or service needs improvement. Don't kid yourself. Be honest with yourself and your team.
  3. When fighting for doing what's right by your suppliers, your customers, and by society at large. Have the courage of your convictions when it comes to the greater good.
  4. When sharing alternative opinions at board meetings with the aim of enriching the discussion with a diverse range of views. If your strategy sucks, tell it like it is.
  5. When your product or service leads to injury or death. Don't sugarcoat a crisis. Say sorry, and be honest about what happened.
  6. When you are having a small dinner party with friends and family. Okay, fine. Cut loose. But pray no one is recording or live streaming it.
  7. After you retire. It might help you sell copies of your memoirs, but at least you can no longer do damage to your brand, and the people who still work there.

In the meantime, let Trump be Trump. You just get on with business.

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