Trump's Boeing blast may mute CEOs

During a conference call this week that was open to the news media, Caterpillar's CEO said he was a little concerned about the incoming administration's tough foreign trade rhetoric.

Should Cat's chief Doug Oberhelman, who is generally supportive of Donald Trump's economic agenda and made his remark during a Business Roundtable call, expect an angry Twitter response from the president-elect?

As we know, stranger things have happened.

On Tuesday, before Oberhelman made his comments, Trump urged the U.S. government, via Twitter, to cancel Chicago-based Boeing Co.'s Air Force One contract. The unprecedented move came only minutes after the online posting of this column, which reported on a speech by Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg, who suggested that the new administration, and Congress, calmly negotiate overseas deals and drop any anti-trade bombast.

Media coverage of the Boeing Twitter saga suggests the column somehow triggered Trump's response. Truthfully, I don't know and the president-elect isn't saying.

What I am more certain of is that there will be fallout from Trump's Boeing blast. Initially, I think it will have a chilling effect on corporate CEOs speaking out in public for a while.

Never known as a loquacious bunch anyway, CEOs may decide to avoid addressing even slightly controversial public policy issues, or avoid more business-centric statements, out of fear that the government, or Trump himself, might lob a Boeing-like Twitter missive at them or their company.

Remember, Boeing's stock dropped about $2 a share, or about 1.5 percent, right after Trump's tweet. It took all day for the aerospace and defense industry giant's stock to regain lost ground and return to nearly the previous day's close. Boeing's woes also were an ongoing story of the day on financial and mainstream media.

Hoping to stay off the firing line, CEOs may now opt to pass on rudimentary speaking engagements, after-dinner speeches, university visits or media events, experts say.

"It doesn't take much for a CEO to say, 'I am not going there,'" contends Ron Culp, a veteran corporate suite communications consultant and instructor at DePaul University.

While not hearing from CEOs isn't a major hardship for most people, this backing away threatens to damage the already shaky dialogue that exists between business leaders and the rest of us.

Even in a controlled environment of a Chamber of Commerce occasion or similar event, businesspeople get out there and share their views about the issues of the day, whether it's public safety, the environment, markets, free trade or community development.

That's also the purpose of the Business Roundtable, where CEOs regularly provide their perspectives on public policy and its interaction with the economy. Caterpillar on Wednesday declined to comment further on its CEO's Business Roundtable comments but provided a transcript of his remarks.

Sounds corny, but at such events the protective corporate bubble can be pierced, if only a little. Community activists, media members, employees, students and other stakeholders get to quiz executives about their corporate strategies and decisions.

We need more healthy CEO dialogues, not fewer.

Right now, who are the business leaders we most often see and hear from? Typically they are also big entertainment personalities like "Shark Tank" regular Mark Cuban, Virgin's Richard Branson and, before he was elected, Donald Trump.

But there's a lot of worthwhile information generated in places like college classrooms and local trade events such as the recent Illinois Manufacturers' Association gathering, where Boeing's CEO gave his fair trade talk.

History shows that previous sitting and incoming presidents have had their beefs with business and corporate honchos. But rarely have they gone after a company the way Trump targeted Boeing, even before social media.

Trump isn't just mixing it up with corporate chiefs, he's also cyber dueling with a labor leader. On Wednesday, Trump tweeted about Chuck Jones, president of United Steelworkers Local 1999, who has been critical of the incoming president's claim of saving 1,100 jobs at manufacturer Carrier's Indianapolis plant, saying he "half-way delivered" on a promise to retain jobs.

"Chuck Jones, who is President of United Steelworkers 1999, has done a terrible job representing workers. No wonder companies flee country!" Trump wrote. Later, he added: "If United Steelworkers 1999 was any good, they would have kept those jobs in Indiana."

Yes, there could be a method to Trump's anger.

For instance, some analysts suggest the motivation for the Boeing tweet was to send a message to the military-industrial complex that his administration is not giving it a blank check.

OK, maybe.

But if Trump's Twitter assault on Boeing was an egotistical, knee-jerk reaction to a story about a CEO exercising his right to free speech, then there's a problem.

And discouraging more CEOs from talking in public may be only one of the consequences.

roreed@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @reedtribbiz

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