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Donald Trump Jr. emails spotlight electronic communication image risks

Posted On: Jul. 18, 2017 7:00 AM CST

Security experts take pains to warn companies about the dangers of sending damaging or embarrassing emails, but what do you do when the problem is coming from the front office?

In response to news stories regarding his meeting with Russian officials, President Donald Trump’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., elected to release the text of controversial emails himself via Twitter after being informed by the New York Times that they had received and were planning to publish the emails.

President Trump has stood by his son. Risk management experts stressed the need to respond to the situation quickly and honestly and maintain a strong corporate communications policy.

“It’s hard to pull in the reins when the CEO sends something out he shouldn’t have sent,” said Chrystina Howard, director of strategic risk consulting for Willis Towers Watson in New York. “Everybody makes mistakes and sometimes people can be very forgiving, but it doesn’t take the place of having a really good (public relations) presence.”

Ms. Howard said companies should jump on these kinds of problems right away and be upfront about what happened and what they will do to fix it.

“If an apology is needed, you issue an apology,” she said.

“It’s hard to stop,” said Christopher Roach, national (information technology) practice leader and a managing director in CBIZ Inc.'s risk & advisory services practice based in Houston. “They were his emails and he decided to share them. On the back end, if you’re responding to something like that, you need to have a good corporate communications policy for dealing with the media outlets.”

Mr. Roach added that he has not seen much coming from the president’s camp regarding Donald Trump Jr.’s actions other than the president calling his son “a good man.”

Renata Elias, vice president and strategic risk consultant with Marsh Risk Consulting in Dallas, advised contacting a manager or the legal or compliance department if there are any doubts about responding to the situation.

“Understand that any email correspondence will be forever on the ‘record,’” Ms. Elias said in an email. “If organizations take a proactive approach in addressing use of email in the workplace with a few tips for employees, they will most definitely lessen the risk of an emerging crisis from an email response ‘gone bad.’”

“The Donald Trump emails are getting traction because they are a larger part of the narrative that there appears to be something going on between the Trump organization and Russia,” said Nir Kossovsky, CEO and director of Pittsburgh-based Steel City Re, which offers insurance and risk management solutions for reputational risk. “It’s not merely Donald Trump Jr. behaving stupidly, but that there’s a much bigger story behind here. Is this the tip of an iceberg and there’s a lot going on down there or is this just a snowflake of silliness?”

Blowback from bad behavior has been around a long time, Mr. Kossovsky said, but today’s technology can make things much worse.

“People say things and they do things and they write things and they send emails that make you cringe when you look at them later,” he said. “But there’s a difference today and that’s with the weaponization of social media. The chances of things purposefully going public to cause damage have increased exponentially.”

Mr. Kossovsky noted that President Trump and his team “have taken the approach of denying, attacking, seeming determined to push through without admitting any lapses.”

“That’s a little tricky given the background framing,” he said. “The entire notion of reputational risk is essentially a battle for the mind of the stakeholder. When a bad thing happens — as they always do — will the stakeholder say, ‘Yeah, that’s a bad thing, but it’s such a good company. It’s unfortunate, but they’re good people and they’ll recover.’  Or will they say ‘Yep, that’s what we expected. That’s a bad company and that’s one more thing we expected to come out of them.’”