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Change Communication by Trump

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In the last few weeks Donald Trump has kept newspaper headline writers around the world very busy. But, amid a flurry of Executive Orders at the start of his Presidency, one has stood out above all others: the Order barring all visitors from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen from entering the US for 90 days, suspending Syrian refugees entry indefinitely and all others for 120 days.

Like him or loathe him, you’ve got to hand it to him – his election campaign turned accepted wisdom on its head. His campaign was confrontational and populist, appealing to many people while alienating many others. However, his simple and emotive messages connected with enough people to win him the Presidency. As part of his campaign Trump promised a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what’s going on”.  Making a campaign promise and delivering it are two different things – as the events of the last few weeks have shown.

Getting any major organisation to embrace and support big change needs clear leadership, governance and communication to get buy-in, attitude and behaviour change. The controversy surrounding this big policy change demonstrate clearly that the leadership and communication style that won the Presidential race may not be the most effective when it comes to pulling the levers of power.

We won’t explore the rights and wrongs of the Executive Order here. It does, however, make a fascinating case study for how not to lead and communicate big change. Politics isn’t NKD’s area of expertise, but we’ve got lots of experience helping major companies shift thinking, change behaviour and transform performance. While governing, and transforming, the world’s largest economy is way more complicated than leading the largest corporation, change is still change. The principles behind leading and communicating it are the same, whether it’s changing Constitutional law, or the customer experience for a global brand.

So, what has happened? The Order was issued late on Friday 27th January with immediate effect, and within a short timeframe it had whipped up a storm. While some welcomed the Order, others called this a crisis of the Constitution. In the immediate aftermath, the impact has been huge:

  • Widespread condemnation from international leaders, the UN and the media
  • Major protests at US airports, the White House and Trump’s Washington hotel
  • Acting US Attorney Sarah Yates fired after defying the White House in a memo
  • Multiple legal challenges against the Executive Order
  • Hundreds of major US companies, including Alphabet, Amazon, Ford, Goldman Sachs and Microsoft criticised the Order
  • The US stock market fell to its lowest level in 2017 on the Monday after the Order was issued
  • US diplomats have allegedly signed memos disagreeing with the Order
  • Foreign policy and national security officials have asked the White House to withdraw the Order

Previous Administrations under George W. Bush and Barack Obama also imposed immigration restrictions and suspensions for foreign nationals (although not to the same extent and with different circumstances) without experiencing the level of outcry this Order has caused. So, what has caused such a firestorm from an Order presumably made to protect the US from a terrorist threat?

Lots! This includes the wording and intent of the Order, Trump’s leadership style, and different interpretations of how the legal and administrative process should work. For the purposes of this article we’ll focus on the situation from a change communication perspective. Here are three key areas where we believe the Administration appears to have fallen short.

1. Co-ordination

Key cabinet members with responsibility for implementing the Order did not appear to be aware of the details, including Defence Secretary Jim Mattis, Homeland Security Secretary, John Kelly, and Rex Tillerson, who is awaiting confirmation to lead the State Department. Some reports say they were not briefed until President Trump was signing it on TV.

Leading intelligence officials were also left largely in the dark, according to US officials. And House Republican leaders also seem to have had no involvement in writing the Order and little awareness of its contents. Some impacted parties appear to have learned about the Order through the media.

What are the Change Communication lessons?

  • Have a clear plan to engage key stakeholders, consult with and involve them before any major change
  • Gather and consider the feedback of the people responsible for implementing the change – they know their job better than anyone
  • Cascade change through effective leadership channels first to get understanding and buy-in
  • Leave sufficient time for people to prepare and brief their teams about the impact of change to get maximum employee engagement

2. Clarity

This lack of co-ordination led to confusion for organisations implementing the Order. Federal agencies were unclear on what this meant to different groups such as legal permanent residents, or citizens of those countries on trips abroad who already have permission to live and work in the US.

It also had an impact outside of the Federal Government. Airlines complied, but many were confused about whether Green Card holders were covered by the Executive Order. Other Governments including the UK, Australia, and Israel were also puzzled about how the Order would affect their citizens who were dual nationals of a blacklisted country and issued vague, unclear statements as a result.

The Federal Government then spent time clarifying the confusion, time that could have been saved if they had issued clear guidance in the first instance. In the meantime, the damage had been done, with many travellers affected by the situation and others uncertain of whether to travel to the US or not.

What can we learn from this?

  • Time spent drafting clear messages is essential
  • Develop different messages for each of your stakeholder groups
  • Be clear about why you’re making the change, what the change is, and what impact it will have
  • Rigorously test with all stakeholder groups to ensure they have clear understanding and you can get buy-in

3. Consistency

Some members of the Federal Government affected by the fallout from the Order feel this threatens the values the U.S. was built on – justice, freedom and a warm welcome to people fleeing tyranny. A draft memo circulated around US Diplomatic Missions stated that “We are better than this ban,” and the Order “stands in opposition to the core American and Constitutional values that we, as Federal employees, took an oath to uphold.” It’s clear that when a change feels misaligned with core values, it will meet serious resistance.

Secondly, the key messages have been inconsistently delivered by senior members of the Government and Trump’s inner circle. Former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani claimed to have worked on the policy and called it a “Muslim ban”. However, other members of the Government, such as Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly, perhaps concerned about the Order being seen as a religious test, and therefore unconstitutional, have stated that this is not a ban on Muslims.

Banning nationals from these seven countries also appears to be inconsistent with the historical facts of terrorism in the U.S. An analysis of terrorist attacks on U.S. soil between 1975 and 2015 found that foreign nationals from the countries singled out by Trump’s Executive Order have killed zero Americans. Countries where foreign nationals who have been responsible for terrorist attacks in the U.S., such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Pakistan, are not subject to the Executive Order. A good emotive story will usually beat dry facts and data, but when the story is at odds with the facts, you fail to convince people who want hard evidence.

The rushed Order also appears to have led to inconsistent application by different Federal Agencies. Employees responsible for approving immigration applications got quick and categorical orders to stop. But when it came to enforcement, Customs Agents were left to interpret the Order. This meant that it was luck of the draw if travellers got a friendly agent, or someone intending to apply the Order as strictly as possible. Some Border Agents even went beyond the wording of the Order by attempting to force detainees to surrender Green Cards. In a vacuum of clarity, co-ordination or consistency, front line employees will make individual judgements on how to act.

What can we learn from this?

  • Major change needs to be consistent with the values of the organisation, or show evidence why you are changing those values
  • Leaders need to tell a consistent story, or the message is undermined
  • Creative communications can help messages appeal to the emotions, but use facts and evidence to get clear understanding and buy-in from all stakeholders
  • Affected people mostly want to know how the change will impact them with guidance on how to implement the change in their role

A legal battle over this Executive Order is now inevitable, but that may be the least of President Trump’s worries. His supporters deserting him will be far more serious. U.S. Presidents usually have a honeymoon period, taking many months before more than 50% of U.S. citizens disapprove of their presidency. Out of the last five Presidents, Bill Clinton was the quickest after 573 days. However, Donald Trump has smashed this record, taking just eight days to gain a majority disapproval rating, according to Gallup polling. By 18 February 2017, 55 per cent of Americans said they disapprove of the job Donald Trump is doing as President.

It remains to be seen if Trump’s, and the United States’, reputations will be damaged long term, or if that will fundamentally undermine his leadership. But, losing the goodwill of the American people, the judiciary, the media, strong voices in the Republican party and key members of his cabinet doesn’t look like a great start.

More thought and consideration on how to engage with Federal agencies and communicate the Order would have helped avert many of the issues faced. It may also have delivered a less polarising policy that achieved the multiple aims of protecting the United States from terrorists, being true to American values, and treating legitimate visitors and immigrants from these seven countries fairly.

In big corporations, most major changes fail to achieve their objectives. This often leads to wasted opportunities, damaged reputations, reduced customer confidence, lost revenue, declining market share, even bankruptcy. History is littered with CEOs whose glittering careers have been brought down by a poorly led and communicated change programme. But, at its heart, major change is very simple. It’s all about people – and making sure they are involved and brought on the journey is critical to sustained success. These are lessons the current White House Administration may need to learn.

Any comments? We’d love to hear what you think.