CEOs parted from Trump — as local business leaders stay silent. Why?

6:00 a.m. Wednesday, Aug. 30, 2017 Local
Nationally, many CEOs have distanced themselves from President Donald Trump’s comments in the wake of violence in Charlottesville, Va. But locally, business leaders have not been so quick to speak out. (Meghan McCarthy / The Palm Beach Post)

Call it reverse Trump effect?

The buzz was everywhere in Palm Beach County earlier this year when the newly inaugurated President Donald Trump began spending weekends here. Some local business leaders speculated the presidential spotlight on the Winter White House could generate more tourism, investment or real estate deals.

The optimism had a name: The “Trump effect.”

But as nearly two dozen charities have announced they will move events from Mar-a-Lago, and national CEOs have distanced themselves from Trump publicly following the violence in Charlottesville, Va., leaders in the local business community are not talking Trump boom. In fact, they are not talking much at all. The one group that has been most outspoken, The Palm Beach Chamber of Commerce, has done so in a divided fashion.

With the 2017-2018 winter season just a couple months away, a Trump effect now seems hollow.

“I’m not sure there ever was a Trump effect,” West Palm Beach Mayor Jeri Muoio told The Palm Beach Post earlier this month. “I think there was a lot of hope that his fame would bring more businesses to our county and our city. I haven’t seen that happen. I think we’re certainly more well-known as a city as a result but I’m not sure that that has precipitated more businesses coming in.”

That was not the sentiment earlier this year.

For example, Kelly Smallridge, president and CEO of the Business Development Board of Palm Beach County, said she hoped Trump’s Winter White House in Palm Beach “has a major halo effect” that “created a significant buzz” for the county. At the time, just before Trump hosted China’s President Xi Jinping in Palm Beach for an April summit, Smallridge said three financial service firms were looking at expanding to the area.

In light of controversy surrounding charities hosting events at Mar-a-Lago, area business leaders have remained silent on the prospects or benefits from Trump’s visits. Smallridge did not respond to requests for comment for this article. Neither did a number of other chamber and business leaders contacted.

Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump arrive at the Red Cross Ball at the Mar-a-Lago Club on Feb. 4, 2017. (Meghan McCarthy/The Palm Beach Post)

‘A referendum’ on Trump?

Tom Kelleher, professor and chair of the Department of Advertising at the University of Florida, said the silence is understandable, and probably wise. While national CEOs may see condemnation of Trump’s statements more in the abstract, local business leaders could see “a more direct impact” if they speak out on Mar-a-Lago, said Kelleher.

“In a way, it’s one thing if you’re directly reacting to Charlottesville and the president’s comments on Charlottesville,” Kelleher said. “You’re coming out against Neo-Nazis, and you’re coming out against white supremacists.”

And while that may not be such a risky prospect, a Palm Beach business owner commenting on whether or not to hold events at Mar-a-Lago could be.

“It’s almost a referendum on President Trump in general, and people don’t want to get into alienating his group of supporters,” Kelleher said.

Businesses on a local level also stand to risk the valuable contacts they’ve potentially spent years building, Kelleher added.

“You realize, if you stay out of it, no one is going to hate you for it,” he said. “You’re in danger of drawing a strong negative response.”

Kelleher noted that distinction, of not making a political statement, is important for organizations to consider — whether they are moving to or from Mar-a-Lago, or commenting on the Trump effect.

“I think the reluctance to the business community is, ‘Why would we want to get into a political battle that doesn’t relate to something we do?’” Kelleher said. At this point, for example, holding an event at Mar-a-Lago carries more risk than benefit, he added.

“By not having an event there, that’s the less political move,” Kelleher noted.

Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Donald Trump and his then-fiance Melania Knauss toast the new year at Mar-a-Lago’s New Year’s Eve Gala in 2004. (Palm Beach Post staff file photo)

Politics, logistics and cash

Longtime South Florida public relations professional Valerie Zucker, of Zucker Lewis Media Group, said that the media is “putting too much emphasis” on Trump’s politics, creating a perception issue for charities and businesses.

“Maybe they (charities) really don’t think poorly of the venue or of the president, but they think people may raise an eyebrow,” she said. “It’s because of perception and image. That’s sort of what the president is dealing with here.”

Zucker, who is going into her 25th year in public relations, said any good work Trump is doing is overshadowed when he does or says something controversial. And the public perception — and what is picked up on by businesses and charities — is that chaos. Zucker said the White House communications team, which has seen quite a bit of turnover in the first months of the Trump administration, could be partially at fault for the president’s “image issues.”

“There hasn’t been a consistent message on who he is and what he’s doing,” she said.

In her nearly 25 years representing clients from myriad segments of South Florida’s business community, Zucker said she has never seen anything quite like what has happened with Mar-a-Lago over the past two weeks.

“I can’t think of any location, definitely not in South Florida, that would have anything to compare to this,” she said.

The closest she could come was the effect designer Gianni Versace’s 1997 murder had on his opulent Miami Beach mansion, which, similar to Mar-a-Lago, was known to host society events. But in that case, Zucker said, the media surrounding Versace’s shooting death turned the estate into a “curiosity.” Zucker noted what seems to be a double standard in what happened in the wake of that event, and what is happening with Trump’s club.

“(The public has) no problem walking onto the steps of death,” she said, referring to the front door of Versace’s mansion, where the legendary fashion icon was gunned down. “But they can’t cut a break to an organization that is trying to put on events at a world-class facility.”

Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Donald Trump gets into a car after disembarking a plane at Jet Aviation at Palm Beach International Airport in 2009 ahead of that year’s Red Cross Ball at Mar-a-Lago. (Meghan McCarthy/The Palm Beach Post)

To speak or not to speak

Those thinking about speaking out also have a strong local risk-benefit analysis: The case of the Palm Beach Chamber of Commerce.

On Aug. 17, chamber Executive Director Laurel Baker called out charities hosting galas at Mar-a-Lago.

“If you have a conscience, you’re really condoning bad behavior by continuing to be there,” Baker told The Post. “Many say it’s the dollars (raised at the events) that count. Yes. But the integrity of any or organization rests on their sound decisions and stewardship.”

But those comments were then disavowed. Chamber President Carrie Bradburn wrote a letter of apology to Mar-a-Lago saying that Baker’s comments reflected her own views and did not represent the opinion of the chamber.

There was one other chamber that has spoken out, but only to emphatically state that it had not spoken out.

The Chamber of Commerce of the Palm Beaches, which is not the same as the Palm Beach Chamber of Commerce, fielded tweets from people who mistook it for the board that employs Baker.

“Laurel Baker is not with this Chamber. We have not made a political statement,” the chamber of the Palm Beaches replied to one person who called Baker “a hero.”

To another Twitter user who tagged the Palm Beaches chamber and called it a “laughingstock” — a tweet that was accompanied by a screenshot of an article in The Washington Post where Baker called Mar-a-Lago’s business “morally reprehensible” — a reply was sent saying, “You have tagged the wrong Chamber. We have not made any political statements.”

All of which perhaps speaks to a reverse Trump effect right now, said one local official.

Palm Beach County Mayor Mary Lou Berger said she believes there still is a Trump effect — but not the same one seen when the president was visiting Mar-a-Lago earlier this year.

“Well look what has happened with the non-profits pulling out,” Berger said when asked how the Trump effect has changed. “That tells a big story right there, that they’re pulling out from events that they traditionally hold at Mar-a-Lago.”

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