Who’s Winning the Government Shutdown PR Game?


 Julie Talenfeld, Founder and President, BoardroomPR 

When President Donald Trump took to the Oval Office for a nationally televised prime-time address Tuesday, it was the latest in his escalating battle to win the hearts and minds of the American people regarding the need for a U.S.-Mexico border wall. 

He wasn’t alone. In the interest of “equal time,” U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer countered with a joint statement. 

What the world witnessed was more than the latest salvo in the battle over border-wall funding, and by extension, a nearly three-week-old government shutdown. It was an example of how the pro- and anti-wall forces are deploying powerful PR to boost their message, bring their camps closer, and win over border wall fence-sitters in what some believe is a contrived crisis. 

Televised prime-time addresses are high-stakes media relations available to few corporate CEOs – or any other world leader, for that matter. While the tools are powerful, the messaging laid in the weeks, months, even years preceding Tuesday night didn’t help the cause. 

If your word is your brand, truth and consistency wins hearts and minds. 

The Trump Administration has been relentless in using every media tool at its disposal. Among their messages: The Democrats are soft on immigrant crime and protecting the jobs immigrants take. One speaking point rolled out lately: Schumer, and then-Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton – along with 23 other Democrats – voted for The Secure Fence Act of 2006, which authorized some 700 miles of fencing along the border. 

But the administration’s previous messaging continues to leave the nation skeptical. During a December 12 meeting with Schumer and Pelosi, Trump promised to “take the mantle” of any shutdown that may come; now, close to a million Americans are furloughed. 

Before the mid-terms, Trump dispatched thousands of U.S. troops to the border to prevent a “caravan” of migrants from crossing into the U.S. The day after the November elections, that narrative went quiet. 

As far back as his first campaign stump speeches, then-candidate Trump promised a border wall that Mexico would pay for. Mexico scoffed, so Trump pivoted. To a country reeling from questionable tariffs and trade policies, he said revenues from his newly-minted – but still not Senate-ratified – United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, or USMCA, will more than pay for the wall. 

In essence, he says, Mexico is paying for the wall. 

Many Americans aren’t buying the math. 

Maybe most telling about citizen and media skepticism over his messaging is the number of fact-checkers dispatched to pore over statements made Tuesday. Even Fox News host Shepard Smith refuted the president’s claims about rising flow of immigrants, drugs, and crime. 

“Statistics show that there is less violent crime by the undocumented immigrant population than by the general population,” Smith said following the address. 

In the governmental PR game, no side is immune. Pelosi and Schumer are seen as savvy, veteran politicians – just the kind of insiders against whom Trump successfully targeted much of his campaign messaging. In essence, both sides are susceptible to the taint of negative publicity. 

With the government shutdown now into its third week, however, the lessons are clear for C-suite and communications professionals alike: Whether along Pennsylvania Avenue, Wall Street, or Main Street, what we say today has to jibe with what we said and did in the past. 

Because our constituents, customers, and stakeholders – and fact checkers – are keeping tabs. 

About the Author: Julie Talenfeld is the president of BoardroomPR, one of Florida’s largest integrated marketing agencies. She can be reached at jtalenfeld@boardroompr.com.