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Following President Trump’s response to the far-right rally in Charlottesville, Charlie looks at the lessons business continuity professionals can take from observing crises unravelling in the media.

I have always said that some of the best education on business continuity and crisis management, apart from BC Training courses, can be found watching crises unfold on the news. We can learn an immense amount by looking at how those involved handle the incident and how the media and public react. We also have the opportunity to think about whether we would have suggested a different approach, if we were the organisation’s crisis advisor. 

This week I have been following President Trump’s response to the far-right rally in Charlottesville, which saw Nazi flags flying, a torchlight procession and the murder of Heather Heyer. Over the weekend, the President was criticised from many sides for not implicitly condemning the right-wing protesters. On Monday, he condemned them, but then in a press conference the following day said both sides were to blame for the violence which followed the march, seemingly going back on his statement from the day before.

So, what can we learn from this?

1. I think we all know that any incident that involves race is a minefield to deal with. One of the worst accusations you can have said about you or your organisation is that you are racist. We have seen the difficulties the police had in the UK when there were cases of gangs of mainly Asian men grooming and conducting sexual offences against young primarily white girls. When the cases were first reported to the police, they were reluctant to deal with them, because they didn’t want to be accused of being racist, consequently allowing the abuse to carry on. In the recent Trump incident, we have seen the resignation of many members of the industry councils he had set up. They didn’t want to be associated with a President who is accused of not strongly condemning racists. For me, the lesson is that if your organisation is involved in an incident where there is an element of race involved, the strategic team should tread very carefully in their response.

2. There are certain groups in society where there is no moral ambiguity as to whether they should be condemned. Nazi’s, Ku Klux Klan members and paedophiles are groups of people that fall into this bracket. If your organisation is any way associated, asked to comment or caught up in an incident involving these groups, condemnation is the obvious answer. Do not be mealy-mouthed like the President in this instance, as this then becomes a story in its own right and your organisation will become associated with these groups and your reputation tarnished.

3. Like the sponsorship by big brands of famous people and sports stars, there is always a danger that any bad behaviour from the sports star can have an ill effect on the brand they are promoting. In the same way, those who flocked to join Trump’s business advisory councils and forums perhaps should have thought through their association with the President before they volunteered. Yes, they could promote their brand and inform policy and it is also good for their kudos to fraternise with the President, but they should have thought about the risk. Big organisations are perhaps more aware of the risk of using sports stars, than being associated with politicians!

4. In many organisations, we are advisors to senior managers when dealing with an incident. We hope that they take our advice and listen to what we have to say. The sight of a very dejected General Kelly, Trump’s Chief of Staff at the back of the press conference President Trump gave on Tuesday, where he undid the strong condemnation statement from the day before, told its own story. Trump was off script and not listening to his advisors.

5. Lastly, how does the White House get ahead of the story and calm the daily news frenzy that is going on around the President? We wait with baited breath each morning to see what disaster has happened next and what new revelation will come out. The more we want news, the more the media digs to find news. The situation reminds me a little of the media frenzy just before the death of Lady Diana. Every day brought some new revelation or happening and it only ended with her death. How does the White House get in front of this story, calm things down and get on with business, rather than all staff energy being consumed in a soap opera being played out in the media?

About Charlie Maclean-Bristol

Charlie Maclean-Bristol is one of the Founders and Directors of PlanB Consulting. He is also the Training Director of Business Continuity Training Ltd., a UK-based training provider accredited by the Business Continuity Institute. Charlie is a former Business Continuity Institute board member and one of the very few Fellows of both the Emergency Planning Society and the Business Continuity Institute.

A former Infantry Captain in the British Army, Charlie held several emergency planning, business continuity and crisis management positions within the energy and utility industry before founding PlanB Consulting in 2007. Over the past twelve years, Charlie has delivered business continuity consultancy in 6 of the worlds 7 continents, frequently providing full business continuity roll-outs to organisations of all sizes and in all sectors.

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