Crisis management requires truth, not obfuscation

There are some people who believe President Donald Trump and his closest advisers committed illegal acts by conspiring with Russian officials before and after the 2016 presidential election. Others believe the president and his advisers indeed had contacts with Russian officials, but that those contacts were benign and not criminal.

Our friend and colleague, Peter Sandman, often writes about crisis communications, which he calls “outrage management.” Sandman says the value of outrage management, as it relates to the Trump/Russia boondoggle, depends on what the truth is:

“When what you did was really awful and people are rightly extremely upset,” Sandman says, “your central problem isn’t that people are upset; it’s what you did … the value of outrage management for ameliorating the furor over contact between Russian intelligence and people associated with the Trump campaign depends on what the truth is.”

The question many ask is whether Trump and his campaign people, before and after Election Day, actively conspired with the Russian government, with promises made on both sides. If that is indeed the truth, then the president’s current efforts to cast doubt and distrust about the Mueller investigation’s possible conclusions — and even its raison d’etre — make perfect sense because that truth will likely end his presidency.

On the other hand, if candidate Trump and his campaign people were engaged in no more than the typical amount of conversation that goes on between foreign governments and incoming presidential administrations, all within standard legal and ethical boundaries and with the goals of beginning a new relationship and discussing existing and nascent policy matters, then everything looks much different.

“There’s no there there, no actual scandal based on facts we know so far — just an overreaction fueled partly by Democrats’ and journalists’ anti-Trump animus; partly by the general public’s free-floating anxiety; partly by President Trump’s pugnacity and unpredictability; partly by leaks from the U.S. intelligence community and the White House itself; and partly by the failure of Trump associates to acknowledge forthrightly the germs of truth at the center of the ruckus,” Sandman says.

Assuming the outrage is out of proportion to the facts, what should President Trump do to manage the outrage? If you’ve ever attended any of the seminars we teach on crisis management, you know our mantra: Tell the truth, tell it all, tell it first and tell it fast.

Our advice to President Trump would be exactly that, encouraging cooperation with the Department of Justice with the attitude that the public has a right to know and the understanding that the truth will eventually emerge.

For the entrepreneurs and executives reading this who may face workplace accusations, data breaches, food-borne illnesses, product failures and allegations of malfeasance, misfeasance and other unbecoming conduct, remember this: If your goals are bigger market share and better relationships with customers, clients, vendors and employees, true crisis management requires truth, not obfuscation.

And it’s never too late to tell the truth and tell it all.

Bruce Hennes is CEO at Hennes Communications