The main purpose of outrage management – what PR people call “crisis communication” – is to prevent stakeholders from getting more outraged about something than the actual situation justifies … or, failing that, to ameliorate their outrage till it’s more commensurate with reality. When what you did was really awful and people are rightly extremely upset, the outrage management toolkit can still help a bit around the periphery (see Managing Justified Outrage), but at that point your central problem isn’t that people are upset; it’s what you did. I would never want to teach someone outrage management in order to help that person get away with bad stuff about which people should be outraged. And if I did, it wouldn’t help much anyway.
So 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 underlying question here, at least one of them, is whether the Trump campaign’s contacts with Russian intelligence operatives were stupid or evil. (See The Stupidity Defense.)
At the evil extreme, assume that candidate Trump and his associates conspired with the Russian Government to win him the presidency, in return for which he promised various policy quid pro quos that he now intends to fulfill. If that’s the truth, then his only hope of saving himself and his treasonous presidency is to keep that truth from coming out. I have no desire to help him, and outrage management wouldn’t help much anyway.
Now let’s make some contrary and I think likelier assumptions:
- Assume that Trump’s desire for a reset with Russia isn’t part of a deal but simply a policy position with debatable pros and cons about its feasibility and desirability.
- Assume that Russia hacked the DNC and others, and selectively published some of what it learned, without the prior knowledge or involvement of the Trump campaign. Assume that its goal in doing so was primarily to weaken the Clinton presidency it expected, and secondarily to improve the odds of the Trump presidency it preferred – a long shot that came in.
- Assume that Trump campaign and transition leaders did a normal and reasonable amount of reaching out or responding on his behalf to the Russian ambassador to the U.S. and other Russian officials – aiming to establish the beginnings of a relationship and, within legal and ethical bounds, to send signals about what a Trump presidency might be like.
- Assume that Russian intelligence made a concerted effort to meet with Trump associates, aiming to wheedle as much information as possible about what a Trump presidency might be like (including the likely fate of Obama sanctions), and to establish the beginnings of a relationship with the people likeliest to become senior administration officials in a Trump administration.
- Assume that the meetings that took place between Russian intelligence people and Trump associates were somewhere between benign and na´ve on the part of the Trump people – that the Russians may have learned more than the Trump associates realized they were sharing but that there was no conspiracy, no deal-making, no negotiated quid pro quo.
- Assume that Clinton associates also had communications with Russian intelligence (after all, many Clinton associates, including President Obama, had run or were still running the U.S. Government). But the Russians already knew as much as they needed to know about the Clinton presidency they expected, so there would have been less need to feel out Clinton associates. And Clinton associates were mostly old diplomatic hands who would have been less likely to say more than they intended to say.
What’s left is a debatable policy issue about U.S.-Russian relations and a subsidiary debatable policy issue about how best to respond to Russian meddling on the fringes of the U.S. election. (I haven’t a clue if Russia does that sort of meddling more than we do. If it does, I haven’t a clue whether that’s because they’re better at it than we are; or because we considered it ungentlemanly; or because we thought there was a gentleman’s agreement not to do it which Russia has now violated, raising the question of whether we should now violate it too or try to reestablish it.)
With this set of assumptions, there’s no there there, no actual scandal based on facts we know so far – just an over-reaction 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.
Assuming the outrage is out of proportion to the facts, what should President Trump do to manage the outrage?
Part of the answer – the part that should be obvious by now to everyone – is transparency. What I just called “the germs of truth at the center of the ruckus” need to be acknowledged. The White House should be collecting as complete a list as possible of contacts between Trump associates and the Russian Government, using a broad definition of both terms. Then it should publish the list: Who talked to whom, when, where, for how long, why, about what?
This should have been done weeks ago, before the Flynn controversy. But now is better than never. There is no evidence so far that General Flynn or Attorney General Sessions or anyone else made illicit deals with Russian Ambassador Kislyak. Speculation about the content of their conversations is fueled by their efforts not to disclose that the conversations occurred.
The rest of the outrage management toolkit (see Reducing Outrage: Six Principal Strategies ) would also help. For example:
- Acknowledge the validity of opponents’ concerns. Yes, accusations about an illicit relationship with Russia are over-the-top and biased. But there is some smoke, and the search for fire isn’t illegitimate.
- Stake out the middle ground. For example, Trump’s denials of complicity in the Russian hacking would be more credible if he conceded that the hacking did benefit his campaign. His denials that his associates’ meetings with Russian officials were illicit would be more credible if he conceded that in hindsight there were an awful lot of meetings, suggesting that the campaign may have been a bit naïve as the Russians nosed around for intelligence tidbits.
- Acknowledge prior misbehavior. “These meetings should have been acknowledged more forthrightly. We should have published a list weeks ago.”
- Share control and be accountable. For example, support an independent investigation (not a “prosecutor”) to get to the bottom of this mess ASAP.
- Share credit. Everything you do reluctantly, under pressure, is a victory for your critics. It’s wise to say so. But it’s rare. Even when I could persuade my clients to take the necessary steps to ameliorate stakeholder outrage, they typically undermined the value of these steps by pretending they were doing it because they wanted to, not because they had to.
- Bring underlying motives and concerns to the surface. “I get it that a lot of people are profoundly uneasy about my presidency. They’re worried about their health care, about their undocumented friends and neighbors, about what effect my radical policies might have on the economy and international relations, about my personal style that they find so unpresidential. Sometimes these other issues get displaced onto something handy – in this case, the claim that I might have made a campaign deal with the Russians.”
I realize that all of this sounds very un-Trumpian. Then again, I spent four decades giving this kind of advice to corporations and government agencies – and it always – always – felt uncomfortable to my clients. They invariably fought back on the grounds that the outrage management strategies I was espousing were antithetical to their organizational cultures and personal styles. I don’t doubt they were right. Yet sometimes I managed to convince them to give outrage management a try anyway. And when they did, they were often surprised not just at how well it worked, but at how comfortable it seemed … to their stakeholders if not to them (at least not right away).
Still, Donald Trump is a special case. My clients may have found my outrage management bag-of-tricks uncomfortable, but they really did want to reduce their stakeholders’ outrage. I’m not sure Trump shares that goal. As Disruptor-in-Chief, he might just welcome the Russia scandal, which contributes to the country’s sense of teetering on some kind of brink. He does seem to relish keeping the country teetering. Whether that’s strategy or self-indulgence, it’s Trump. So maybe he has no use for outrage management. And even if he did, I have no reason to believe he could muster the discipline to use it.
Or he might decide he needs to calm the waters at least somewhat, so Congress, the media, and the public can pay more attention to his actual plans re Obamacare, trade, tax policy, immigration, etc. Insofar as he wants to calm the waters – a Trump goal for which I can find no evidence whatsoever – then yes, outrage management should help a bit.
For decades I have told my clients that outrage management isn’t usually of much value to politicians, because politicians (unlike companies) have a much higher stake in increasing the fervor of their supporters than in decreasing the fervor of their opponents. A rabidly hostile voter costs a politician one vote, just like a mildly hostile voter – whereas calming down a rabidly hostile activist to the point where s/he stays home is hugely valuable to a company. This generalization stops being applicable when widespread public outrage undermines the politician’s ability to get things done. While I doubt that President Trump has the disposition or discipline to make use of outrage management, now is the first time since Clinton’s Lewinsky problem that I thought a president should make use of outrage management.
Copyright © 2017 by Peter M. Sandman