Companies stuck in crossfire between Trump and his critics
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The territory between escalating volleys from the Trump administration and its opponents is shaping up to be the deadliest no-man’s land since the Battle of the Somme. 

Several weeks into the Trump era, the casualty list of companies is mounting. Boeing was one of the first casualties of the Trump era, left reeling from an unexpected presidential Twitter attack over its Air Force One contract. Toyota and Lockheed Martin saw billions of dollars in equity value evaporate in the face of more Trump tweets.

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It is the danger of incoming fire from the Trump administration that likely explains the numerous press reports regarding hundreds of S&P 500 index companies that have mentioned Trump-related issues in their conference calls and other investor events. But trying to make nice with the administration gives rise to another set of risks from fire-breathing activists, partisan bloggers, celebrities and NGOs.

 

Consider the high-profile case of Uber CEO Travis Kalanick, who agreed to sign onto to President TrumpDonald TrumpBiden administration still seizing land near border despite plans to stop building wall: report Illinois House passes bill that would mandate Asian-American history lessons in schools Overnight Defense: Administration says 'low to moderate confidence' Russia behind Afghanistan troop bounties | 'Low to medium risk' of Russia invading Ukraine in next few weeks | Intelligence leaders face sharp questions during House worldwide threats he MORE’s council of business leaders. The council was intended to advise the administration from a nonpartisan perspective, but it quickly turned into an anti-Trump shooting gallery for any company that dared to associate with the president.

For talking to Trump, Kalanick saw the mounting of a #DeleteUber campaign, resulting in a major loss of business in several big cities. Uber's rival, Lyft, took advantage of its plight, pledging $1 million to the American Civil Liberties Union to help immigrants stopped at the border by the Trump administration’s visa moratorium.

Uber’s position worsened when it suspended surge pricing during a taxi strike at John F. Kennedy International Airport that resulted from Trump's travel ban. Protesters spun this act into an effort to break the strike in aid of Trump’s policies (overlooking the fact that Uber's actions harmed many of its drivers who happen to be immigrants).

A humbled Kalanick was forced to withdraw and eat his words: “Joining the group was not meant to be an endorsement of the president or his agenda but unfortunately it has been misinterpreted to be exactly that,” he announced.

The political left has successfully resurrected the tried and true method of shaming companies into not cooperating with the White House. Deep personal animosity for Donald Trump puts any corporation that cooperates with him on the firing line for potential boycotts, pickets, protests, employee walkouts and shareholder motions.

In this environment, one set of companies believes the best move is to side with the activists. Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon and Starbucks have lined up to publicly oppose the president. Much of their opposition is heartfelt, spurred by the visa moratorium. Some of it is inspired by executives and a cadre of political consultants who are former members of the Clinton and Obama administrations. 

It may feel good for a billionaire to man the ramparts like a rebel in Les Misérables, but they may ultimately come to no better end than many of Victor Hugo’s characters. Already, the administration has hinted at revamping the H1B visa program for programmers and talent for tech firms from overseas. What else might Trump do to them over the next four years?

At the very least, these companies will get their share of verbal broadsides and hashtag pummelings, no small thing considering that Trump now commands a whopping 87 million followers glued to his every tweet and post. 

What to do? The best corporate strategy is to withdraw from this cruel battlefield. CEOs should embrace the realization that psychology and perception today matters more than policy. At this moment, psychologists and profilers may have more to offer Fortune 500 companies than do lobbyists and pollsters. Corporate leaders owe it to their shareholders to work within the psyches of Trump and his critics.

Tech CEOs should realize what has long been apparent to manufacturers — Trump’s singular purpose is to deliver on his promises to return lost jobs to America’s disenfranchised middle class, thereby stimulating the economy. To that end, there are plenty of activities companies can undertake that will please the administration without getting crosswise with activists.

One recommendation is to develop long-term partnerships with U.S. schools and universities. This would support the Trump administration’s multibillion “moon shot” to fill the estimated annual 223,000 shortfall in science, technology, engineering and math positions, while pleasing progressives who love the public sector.

Ultimately, CEOs need to look beyond the headlines and find a path that helps them and their shareholders escape the firing range. 

 

James Lee is founder and CEO of The Lee Strategy Group, Inc., a Los Angeles-based strategic communications consultancy, and was press spokesman for Gov. Pete Wilson (R-Calif.). Mark Davis is director and founder of Uptown Creative Strategies Group, an Austin-based executive-level communications consultancy, and was a presidential speechwriter to President George H.W. Bush.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.