John Sargent, CEO of “Fire and Fury” publisher Macmillan, shows how to respond to a high-profile attack

John Sargent

President Trump’s lawyers sent a cease-and-desist letter to try to block publication of Fire and Fury, Michael Wolff’s revealing account of President Trump’s first 200 days in office. The publisher, a division of Macmillan, published it anyway. Now Macmillan CEO John Sargent has sent a memo to all of his staff about the role of publishers under fire — and it’s a great case study in leadership communications while under attack.

Here’s his memo (from Publishing Perspectives) with my commentary:

To: All Macmillan Employees
From: John Sargent

Last Thursday, shortly after 7:00 a.m., we received a demand from the President of the United States to “immediately cease and desist from any further publication, release or dissemination” of Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury. On Thursday afternoon we responded with a short statement saying that we would publish the book, and we moved the pub date forward to the next day. Later today we will send our legal response to President Trump.

Commentary: Note that Sargent starts, not with outrage or hyperbole, but with facts, plainly stated. Having worked with publishers, I can tell you that moving a publication date forward, even by a couple of days, is a massive disruption for a publisher — everything from bookstore promotions to publicity plans to the mechanics of when books actually arrive is built around the publication schedule. But Sargent just starts with factual information.

Our response is firm, as it has to be. I am writing you today to explain why this is a matter of great importance. It is about much more than Fire and Fury.

Commentary: This is a teaching moment for the CEO. The publishing industry has shrunk and is struggling. But Sargent explicitly takes this chance to explain to his staff how they should behave while under attack in the full glare of a media maelstrom.

The president is free to call news “fake” and to blast the media. That goes against convention, but it is not unconstitutional. But a demand to cease and desist publication—a clear effort by the President of the United States to intimidate a publisher into halting publication of an important book on the workings of the government—is an attempt to achieve what is called prior restraint. That is something that no American court would order as it is flagrantly unconstitutional.

This is very clearly defined in Supreme Court case law, most prominently in the Pentagon Papers case. As Justice Hugo Black explained in his concurrence:

“Both the history and language of the First Amendment support the view that the press must be left free to publish news, whatever the source, without censorship, injunctions, or prior restraints. In the First Amendment, the Founding Fathers gave the free press the protection it must have to fulfill its essential role in our democracy. The press was to serve the governed, not the governors. The Government’s power to censor the press was abolished so that the press would remain forever free to censure the Government.”

Then there is Justice William Brennan’s opinion in The New York Times Co. v. Sullivan:

“Thus we consider this case against the background of a profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust and wide-open, and that it may well include vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials.”

And finally Chief Justice Warren Burger in another landmark case:

“The thread running through all these cases is that prior restraints on speech and publication are the most serious and least tolerable infringement on First Amendment rights.”

Commentary: Lawyers, even Supreme Court Justices, talk like lawyers. But they do carry weight. The message here is clear, and the messengers are impressive.

There is no ambiguity here. This is an underlying principle of our democracy. We cannot stand silent. We will not allow any president to achieve by intimidation what our Constitution precludes him or her from achieving in court. We need to respond strongly for Michael Wolff and his book, but also for all authors and all their books, now and in the future. And as citizens we must demand that President Trump understand and abide by the First Amendment of our Constitution.

Commentary: A simple message: no prior restraint. No one at Macmillan could misunderstand.

What every manager can learn from Sargent’s letter

When you need to communicate with staff while under attack, you should do exactly what Sargent did. Specifically:

  • Start with facts. Your emotions may start with outrage, but your communication should be calm. Be clear about what happened and what you are doing about it.
  • Keep it short. This communication is 524 words. It covers only one topic: how the publisher responds to efforts at prior restraint. Don’t use this “opportunity” to discuss other corporate priorities, business woes, or anything else.
  • Describe the issue clearly. These are publishing employees. They know a lot about content and books. Even so, Sargent explains the issue in basic terms: “[A] demand to cease and desist publication—a clear effort by the President of the United States to intimidate a publisher into halting publication of an important book on the workings of the government—is an attempt to achieve what is called prior restraint.”
  • Support your position with evidence. Three quotes from renowned Supreme Court justices are effective.
  • Use “we.” Notice how most of this memo is written in the first person plural. Sargent discusses how “we responded,” describes how “we would publish the book,” and describes “Our response.” He concludes by saying “We cannot stay silent,” “We will not allow any president to achieve [prior restraint] by intimidation,” and “we must demand that President Trump understand and abide by the First Amendment.” Writes often hear advice to avoid repetition. In this instance, the repetition of “we” and “our” makes it clear that this is a combined and firmly held belief that the CEO feels everyone at the company must embrace.
  • Be bold, rather than emotional or hyperbolic. Notice the short, clear, bold sentences, like “There is no ambiguity here.” and “We cannot stand silent.” These will be much more effective in rousing the company than statements about solidarity, love, and anger, or hyperbolic metaphors about war. The writing comes off as firm and dispassionate because, excluding the direct quotes, there are only three weasel words in the entire memo: “flagrantly” (unconstitutional), “very” (clearly defined), and “strongly” (respond). The resulting statement stands on logic and clarity, not bombast.

While this writing seems simple, it’s much harder to create communications like this when your company is under pressure. When you’re under attack, take a moment to reread this memo. Then write your own note to the troops in a tone like this. Emotion fades, but truth and values persist. Clarity is the way to maintain those values in a crisis.

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  1. Excellent blog commending and explicating the pitch-perfect response by Sargent. Thank you for bringing this to my attention.

  2. This is one of the clearest writings on the constitutional basis for and importance of freedom of the press. Thanks for sharing

  3. Sargent did an excellent job of explaining what’s at stake and why. Your post further elucidates why his message is effective. One quibble: I endorse the use of two of the so-called “weasel” words for they make his point strong and clear. “Flagrantly unconstitutional” has such a wonderful ring to it, adding a bit of outrage to Sargent’s explication. And “strongly respond” leaves us with an unquestionable sense of Sargent’s vehemence and conviction. Sometimes weasel words are the right words.