When should someone or an organization respond when verbally attacked? It is a classic question asked of crisis counselors. It is a question without a simple answer. My best advice: Be slow to respond and know how to use your delete key.
On a weekend political news show, Georgia Congressman John Lewis, an iconic figure in the civil and voting rights movements, questioned the legitimacy of Donald Trump’s election as president because of Russian interference.
Trump fired back in tweets that Lewis should “spend more time on fixing and helping his district, which is in horrible shape and falling apart…rather than falsely complaining about the election results.”
Trump’s comeback sparked a tweet storm. Critics chastised him for lacking presidential restraint and criticizing Lewis on the eve of Martin Luther King Day. One tweet said, “You are decades of public service away from having the standing to say 1 word about John Lewis, a genuine civil rights hero.”
The issue here isn’t whether Lewis was right or wrong to make his claim; the issue is Trump's wisdom (or lack of wisdom) of taking the bait and responding.
In light of The Trump-Lewis confrontation, here are some thoughts to consider when faced with an attack online, in print or on air:
- Whatever immediate visceral satisfaction you might get from firing back at a critic can be overwhelmed by the forces you unleash with your response. Trump is just days away from his inauguration. He is going to President of the United States, regardless how Lewis feels about it. Why muddy the pre-inaugural waters by getting into a public spat that only served to divert attention from the bigger issues he wants to put front and center and prolong discussion of his legitimacy.
- John Dickerson, host of Face the Nation, asked Vice President-elect Mike Pence on Sunday why the president-elect couldn’t just let Lewis’ comment slide by. Pence said it was another case of “Trump being Trump.” But organizational leaders and people in the spotlight should realize they have larger roles to play than just being themselves. In this case, there was nothing to gain for Trump by lashing out at Lewis, only more division to sow. Savvy leaders know when to pick their spots. Attacking a civil rights icon who marched and bled with Martin Luther King was a no-win situation and should have been a no-brainer to avoid.
- Even brands and people with aggressive personalities should know when it is time to play a different tune. It’s hardly a secret that the nation is deeply divided on a wide range of issues, so why use insults when you need to encourage unity. If he couldn’t resist responding, Trump might have tried a more disarming response, such as inviting Lewis to work with him on issues related to social justice. Some may have scoffed at the offer, but no one could have accused Trump of being vindictive or “just being Trump.” They might have seen it as a sign of Trump acting presidential.
- Saying nothing when someone attacks you is hard to do, but often is the right thing to do. Lewis expressed an opinion about Trump’s election. A disciplined leader would grit his or her teeth, remain quiet and avoid turning a comment into a multi-day storyline. If Lewis had misstated a fact, such as accusing Trump of intentional collusion with Russian operatives, there would be a cause for a rebuttal, but not on Twitter and probably not directly by Trump. Experienced hands understand how the media works, including social media. They also appreciate that a finessed response can pack a punch more powerful than an actual punch.
- Taking into account your own history is another important element in determining whether to respond and how. In this case, Trump for years challenged the legitimacy of President Obama to sit in the Oval Office based on birther allegations he was born in Kenya, not Hawaii. Trump also tweeted in 2012 that Obama’s re-election wasn't legitimate. Given that high-profile background, Trump had plenty of reasons to avoid a cage fight over this issue, with Lewis or anyone else.
- Many voters cast ballots for Trump because of his blunt speech. But that isn’t license to engage in erratic speech. Getting elected and governing require different skills. You can still be blunt while also being intentional. Harry Truman, who hardly held back his opinions or colorful language to express them, is an example o making a point, not just enemies.
Gary Conkling is president and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at firstname.lastname@example.org and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.