It’s difficult to know what will become of the Trump administration’s immigration policy that includes separating children from their families at U.S. borders. It’s a moving story at the moment. As of this writing, it appears the president, after a June 19 evening session with congressional Republicans, has promised to “sign something” to presumably keep families and children together if they're caught attempting to enter the U.S. illegally.
While this is a complex, highly emotional issue that should be examined with nuance and compassion, we focus only on its communications aspects here because they offer an interesting look at one of the tactics President Trump deployed to successfully propel himself into the White House.
As PR pros know, the public apology is a staple of brand communications. My colleague Steve Goldstein wrote, “At the heart of the crisis management response to an outraged community is the apology itself.”
Recent apologies from brands include Starbucks over the racial incident in Philadelphia in April, and Novartis and AT&T for hiring Michael Cohen in an attempt to gain an advantage in Washington.
Rewriting the PR Playbook
Right or wrong, things have changed in the past few years, however. Candidate—now president—Trump has flipped the public apology on its head. The communications tactic Trump used consistently during the 2016 campaign season and now during his tenure in the White House is to ignore attacks and criticisms and instead attack critics. As such, the word "apology" was discarded from the Trump lexicon.
“The public apology is dead. Long live the indignant counterattack," PR pro John Roderick observed presciently in our subscription publication PR News during the run-up to the 2016 election.
He continued, “Thanks to Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, public figures and corporate chieftains who find themselves on the receiving end of scrutiny…may no longer need to recite painfully scripted statements…they just need to fight back.” Trump attacked critics throughout the primaries, and arguably the communications tactic worked, contributing to his election.
Trump also essentially was his own communications director during the campaign, allowing him to call the shots. At the moment the situation is similar. For weeks the White House communications director post has remained vacant.
While it’s up to historians using data to provide a definitive statement on why people voted the way they did, it appears many Trump supporters approved of his full-steam-ahead, seat-of-the-pants approach to communications. To them, this was Trump being authentic. A variation on “He speaks his mind and never apologizes…he’ll rouse Washington from its slumber by saying what he thinks regardless of the consequences” apparently was what led many voters to pull the lever for Trump in November 2016.
The No-Apology Tactic's Limits
In his article, Roderick provided an extended look at the no-apology tactic. He took great pains to warn communicators that success with such a tactic might be limited to Trump and few others. He pointed to JPMorgan Chase chief Jamie Dimon’s reputation as a sometimes-gruff communicator. In a television interview, Dimon blasted a banker as a “jerk.” There was no apology. The comment made headlines for a few days, but eventually faded. Why? It was authentically Dimon.
An example of the Trump no-apology tactic's limits can be found in one of PR's paradigmatic crisis-management blunders. In September 2016, Wells Fargo chief John Stumpf went before lawmakers on Capitol Hill and refused to apologize fully. He was unwilling to admit that a polluted sales culture resulted in the bank’s bogus credit card scandal. Thousands of fired Wells Fargo employees were to blame, he said. Stumpf was ousted the next month.
Staying the Course
Indeed, the president has spent much of his time adhering to the no-apology-attack-the-attackers communications tactic during the past few days. Initially, he blamed Congress, specifically congressional Democrats, for the policy that separated some 2,300 children from their families at U.S. borders. A June 19 tweet barrage included this one: "Democrats are the problem…they don’t care about crime and want illegal immigrants, no matter how bad they may be, to pour into and infest our Country, like MS-13." It was up to Congress to change the policy, Trump insisted.
The next day he tweeted, "It's the Democrats fault, they won't give us the votes needed to pass good immigration legislation. They want open borders, which breeds horrible crime. Republicans want security."
While criticisms mounted from Democrats, Republicans, brands, celebrities, foreign leaders, former first ladies, religious groups and even the Pope, Trump doubled down. There was no apology. Instead, the president spent June 19 crisscrossing Washington, D.C., defending his immigration policy to cheering supporters, according to the NY Times. "When you prosecute the parents for coming in illegally—which should happen—you have to take the children away," he said.
After hours of defending his policy, Trump met during the evening with Republicans on the Hill. Though the meeting was closed to press, reports early this morning (June 20) indicated the president’s thinking had shifted. Or had it? White House communicator Raj Shah said Trump told the group he would endorse their immigration legislation. But the president said only that it was “a great meeting.”
As we noted above, recent news reports indicate the White House is readying a directive to end separation of children from their families. Of course the details in such an agreement will be crucial and an important chapter in this divisive issue may be far from over.
Certainly communicators, among many others, will be watching what Trump does next on immigration and how he communicates these moves.
Our guess is an apology from the president is not in the cards.
[Updates: June 20, 6 pm ET: President Trump signed an executive order halting separation of immigrant families and their children at the U.S.-Mexico border. “I didn’t like the sight or the feeling of families being separated,” the president said. “I think anybody with a heart would feel strongly about it." The order notes, "It is unfortunate that Congress' failure to act...put the Administration in the position of separating alien families to effectively enforce the law."
June 21, 12:30 am ET: Hours after signing the executive order, President Trump told a rally in Minnesota the U.S.-Mexico border will be "just as tough as it has been...they're not sending their finest. We're sending them the hell back." He also resumed attacks, aiming at congressional Democrats and the media.]
Seth Arenstein is editor of PR News. Follow him: @skarenstein