4 ways business leaders can prepare for presidential criticism

Small comments can have massive impacts.

When presidents attack businesses

Ryan J. Taylor is the Founder and CEO of 440 Strategies in Washington, D.C.

Walking the highwire that connects politics and business is complicated, and mistakes can have real consequences. This is especially true every four years during the race for the White House. As a result of today’s bitterly divisive political environment, both large and small companies risk finding themselves in the crosshairs of presidential campaigns like never before. No company or industry is immune. Posts on social media, off-the-cuff remarks or coordinated campaigns by the candidates’ teams can affect a brand’s reputation, customers and profits. Being called out is something companies should prepare for proactively. To survive this storm, businesses need these four key strategies.


Know your strengths and your weaknesses
Every company should identify potential vulnerabilities that might attract political attention. It’s a good idea for each executive to review their respective business lines and corporate communications to understand the potential pitfalls. We live in different times now; any past mistake or oversight a company makes is fair game on the campaign trail. This is an involved process, especially for large, multinational companies, but the time invested pales in comparison to the cost of having to launch a crisis communications effort if caught unprepared. When business leaders do this work in advance, they’ll have a plan on hand, complete with a way to pivot from defending their brand to going on offense. That way, they can emerge from contact with the campaign trail with a larger, more loyal customer base and stronger market share.

As an example, in 2017, President Donald Trump slammed Nordstrom for dropping his daughter’s clothing line. Obviously, the post generated a lot of media attention and speculation about Nordstrom’s future. The company stood firm in its decision and communicated clearly that the decision was tied directly to sales performance. Nordstrom’s response was decisive, concise and difficult to argue with. Most importantly, the company avoided alienating the president’s supporters while simultaneously endearing itself to its existing customer base.

Do no harm
One of the most obvious ways to avoid being dragged through the mud while the entire world watches on national television is to avoid becoming ammunition for political adversaries in the first place. This seems easy on the surface but requires diligent work to understand potential points of contention.

A great way to figure out what’s going on is to keep an eye on public sentiment through polling, focus groups and social media analysis. Science and art go hand in hand when it comes to using this analysis to plan scenarios and assess risks. Anticipating political events and examining potential outcomes from all relevant angles is another avenue to consider since those inflection points can have a huge impact on businesses, brand reputations and customers. These scenarios include government policy changes, public reactions to company statements and actions, and potential boycotts and protests.

Make a plan but stay flexible
There is an old adage that says, “prepare for the worst, hope for the best.” Nothing could be truer for business leaders with the 2024 presidential election just over the horizon. Start by setting up clear lines of communication and appointing spokespersons who know the company’s values and what’s going on in politics. At this stage of the planning process, pre-approved messages should be written to counter points of possible contention or to provide context for past mistakes. But remember, sometimes silence can be just as an effective response to political criticism.

In the past, one line of defense usually involved showcasing charitable giving practices, DEI and CSR commitments, or pro-environmental programs. This strategy used to work, but in today’s campaign cycle could create additional headaches. Rather than reflexively engaging, instead focus on the company’s core business and consider the following questions:

  1. Do the critics matter?
  2. Will the controversy blow over?
  3. Is the best counter a rebuttal or a redirection?

The answers to those questions will determine whether the best course of action is to release additional statements, pitch the CEO to be on television or opt for silence to avoid adding additional fuel to an otherwise dying fire.

Make some friends
There is power in numbers. Creating a network of key stakeholders, like employees, customers and community leaders, is crucial in times of crisis. This alliance of third-party validators, which sometimes includes a bevy of strange bedfellows, can be a buffer against political hostility. Building this coalition and maintaining it will take time, treasure, and persistence. It starts by communicating regularly with them paying attention to their concerns and addressing their issues promptly. Taking these steps will foster goodwill, strengthen the company’s position in the community and ultimately defend it against political attacks.

Lastly, companies must be willing to engage in constructive dialogue with politicians, regardless of political differences. Taking a defensive stance invites unnecessary conflict and is at odds with the whole purpose of running a business, which is to make a good product that people want while turning a profit with the help of a well-trained team of employees. Ultimately, the ability to engage in meaningful discussions can turn potentially damaging situations into opportunities for business growth.

This isn’t rocket science, but it will take diligent work and potentially difficult internal conversations. Having a crisis communications plan, conducting risk assessments, building a strong network and engaging in constructive dialogue make it possible to handle political crossfire and come out stronger on the other side. A company’s ability to weather storms like these is more than just a strategic advantage, it’s a necessity for its long-term success.


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