January 8, 2017 1:00 pm

How U.S. companies are forced to navigate Donald Trump’s Twitter fury

WATCH ABOVE: Donald Trump already influencing the U.S. auto industry


First it was Carrier. Then it was Boeing Inc., followed by General Motors and Toyota.

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From automakers to defence contractors — and everyone in between — companies are having to confront a new public relations headache in the form of President-elect Donald Trump’s Twitter account, which can cause stock prices to quickly plummet and lead to negative publicity.

On Thursday, Trump took aim at Toyota Motor Corp., threatening to impose a hefty tariff on the Japanese automaker if it builds its Corolla cars for the U.S. market at a plant in Mexico.

“Toyota Motor said will build a new plant in Baja, Mexico, to build Corolla cars for U.S. NO WAY! Build plant in U.S. or pay big border tax,” Trump said in a post on Twitter, which received more than 30,000 retweets.

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Throughout the U.S. presidential campaign and now as the incoming president, Trump has signalled that he is taking an “America First” approach, and whether he gets the facts right or not, crisis communication experts say it’s a new reality businesses are going to have to adapt to: being a target of Trump’s tweets.

“Companies are going to have to anticipate the president’s reactions into business decisions,” said Jane Shapiro, a corporate communications expert and vice-president at Hill+Knowlton Canada. “If Trump targets [companies] they shouldn’t be thinking about what their communication response is, but what’s the business response?”

“It’s a pretty awesome thing to think about in terms of how companies have normally made their decisions,” she said. “How the president will respond has not been one of the factors.”

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In several instances, Trump has gotten the facts wrong or taken credit for something that was already in the works, according to Shapiro.

In November, Trump claimed he convinced the chairman of Ford Motor Co. not to move an assembly plant from Kentucky to Mexico, even though Ford had never intended to move the plant, just production of one of its vehicles.

“Companies who would normally be inclined to correct the record at the drop of a hat might think twice,” Shapiro said. “Maybe if the error is not too egregious you just leave it alone. And if companies feel the need to correct the record you don’t do it via social media.”

Trump’s social media swipe at Toyota came on the heels of another Twitter attack earlier in the week. He threatened General Motors with a tax if it tried to sell Mexican-made Chevy Cruzes in the United States.

“General Motors is sending Mexican made model of Chevy Cruze to U.S. car dealers-tax free across border. Make in U.S.A. or pay big border tax!” he wrote.

On the same day, Ford scrapped plans to build a $1.6 billion assembly plant in Mexico after Trump harshly criticized the investment.

Darryl Konynenbelt, a senior consultant with the well-known crisis communications firm Navigator Ltd., says the days of a 24-hour news cycle are over, it’s now a 2.4-second news cycle where a single tweet can mean a news story.

“If it’s a passing insult and it’s something off the cuff and it’s not impacting your brand I would just leave it alone,” said Konynenbelt. “But if it’s incorrect information, if it’s information that’s impacting your reputation and the facts are wrong, it’s important to respond as soon as you can.”

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Konynenbelt said it’s important for companies to acknowledge an attacking tweet with “grace” before pivoting to facts.

“No executive wants any unwarranted media coverage, it’s important that you have a strong social media plan in place,” he said.

Some companies appear to have figured out how to handle the incoming administration, like the Japanese telecom giant SoftBank Group Corp. and Carrier Corp. based in Indiana.

At a December meeting between Trump and SoftBank Group Corp., the company’s chief executive said SoftBank would invest $50 billion in the U.S. and create 50,000 jobs.

Although the investment was announced before the Nov. 8 presidential election, SoftBanks CEO’s appearance with the president-elect at Trump Tower in Manhattan allowed Trump to take the credit.

Air conditioning and heating company Carrier Corp. also gave Trump a PR win when it agreed to keep some jobs at a heating plant in the United States. In return, Carrier’s parent company, United Technologies Corp., received a reported $7 million in tax incentives.

“It was a win for everybody. Trump got to say I preserved jobs in America and Carrier got tax relief,” Shapiro said.

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