How Does Trump’s Cabinet Affect His Ability to Connect with his Supporters and Dissenters?

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U.S. President Donald Trump announced most of his cabinet-level position nominations in the last two months of 2016, during the transition period prior to his inauguration. The 22 positions – all of which require Senate approval of their nominees – were filled by a mix of campaign loyalists, retired military personnel, and past and current elected officials from the Republican Party. By the middle of April 2017, all these Trump selections had received a Senate hearing, with a few of them still waiting for final confirmation votes.

A president’s cabinet is a vital liaison between the White House and the public, since each of its members leads a large department that is supported by a vast bureaucracy and tasked with implementing the laws in its purview. Cabinet secretaries also have great discretion in interagency rulemaking, as well as, in the interpretation of executive orders. Their power and prominence make them PR magnets for both supporters and dissenters of any administration.

A full cabinet meeting like this one is an opportunity for a president’s top advisers to collaborate on PR strategy.

How the Trump cabinet has been assessed and received by the public

During presidential transitions, cabinet nominees are among the most visible representations of the changes underway. For this reason, it is common for at least some cabinet positions to be filled by January 20, the date when the new president is inaugurated, and for the remainder to be completed within the pivotal first 100 days of the administration.

However, each president since George H.W. Bush has had at least one failed selection for a cabinet spot, necessitating a second pick. These episodes are often major PR setbacks due to the presence of controversy and/or sustained grassroots resistance.

Moreover, filling the cabinet sets the tone for how an administration will engage with the public, based on the characteristics of who is chosen for each of these exclusive positions. Let’s look at the qualifications of the Trump administration’s current cabinet selections and the impact some key choices may have on public relations:

1. Experience

Cabinet officials are usually either elected officeholders, career civil servants, executives from the private sector, or individuals with intersecting experience across these categories. Trump’s cabinet includes members from all three buckets; for example:

Tom Price (Health and Human Services)

A former Congressman, Price was closely watched after being confirmed, since the HHS Secretary oversees popular programs such as Medicare, Medicaid, and the healthcare exchanges authorized under the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Healthcare has been a significant PR challenge for most presidents starting with Bill Clinton; both he and Barack Obama pushed major overhauls of the health system early in their first terms – only to suffer declining approval ratings and huge midterm election setbacks afterward ­– while Trump has so far held similar ambitions. Effective PR messaging is essential here due to the central role of healthcare in public life and the U.S. economy.

Price was a go-to PR spokesman for the American Health Care Act (AHCA), a would-be ACA replacement saddled from the start with negative publicity about its potential consequences (it had yet to receive a vote as of April 2017). In town halls and press conferences, Price focused on concepts such as “choice,” as well as his own background as a medical doctor, to try to put a positive, informed spin on AHCA. But Price’s credibility as a messenger on health reform was often questioned due to his role as a chief architect of previous symbolic attempts to repeal the ACA in the House of Representatives.

Andy Puzder and Alexander Acosta (Labor)

An executive at fast food chain Carl’s Jr., Puzder was Trump’s first failed cabinet nominee. Puzder’s nomination simultaneously alienated Trump supporters and dissenters because of his practices as a CEO and his views on several particularly sensitive issues. Nominating anyone for the Labor Department is often a PR quandary for a GOP president, given the tense relationship between his party and the labor movement.

All the same, the subsequent pick of former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida and law school dean Alexander Acosta was effective PR for two reasons:

His selection immediately brought forward public statements of support from Republican politicians such as U.S. Senator Mike Lee.
He was the first Hispanic person nominated to the Trump cabinet, continuing a decades-long tradition of having at least one cabinet-level official with such background.

James Mattis (Defense) and John Kelly (Homeland Security)

For a position like Secretary of Defense, specific experience – i.e., as a military officer – is especially important for handling day-to-day responsibilities and establishing credibility for departmental PR efforts. A Defense Secretary must explain the implications of complex matters (e.g., an overseas operation) to geopolitical allies and foes, along with the public and the media, and frame them in a way that maximizes support and minimizes dissent.

A decorated former general, Mattis was an uncontroversial pick whose nomination initially brought positive PR to the White House. He was largely portrayed in the media as a stabilizer, capable of clearly communicating his department’s intent toward critical allies such as South Korea. A similar wave of favorable publicity followed Homeland Security choice John Kelly, also a retired general with a longer record of public service than most other Trump cabinet nominees.

2. Name recognition

Many cabinet heads are largely unknown to the public when a president nominates them. There have been no household name Directors of National Intelligence or Directors of the Office of Management and Budget. However, the Trump administration already includes notable exceptions to this standard for other positions:

Betsy DeVos (Education)

A high-profile GOP donor, DeVos was well-known as an advocate of charter schools prior to her confirmation as Trump’s Secretary of Education. Her nomination attracted unprecedented public interest and resulted in a close Senate vote.

Like healthcare, education is a wide-reaching field that can easily incubate PR challenges. With that in mind, DeVos has so far maintained a relatively low profile, perhaps as part of a “no news is good news” PR strategy in response to her poorly received Senate hearings. Public appearances with celebrities such as the rapper Pitbull may also have been attempts at rehabilitating her image, although she has also had to face questions about the size and cost of her security detail.

Jeff Sessions (Justice)

Sessions has been in the public eye since the 1980s, when he was unsuccessfully nominated by Ronald Reagan to a federal judgeship – a notable PR low point for that administration. As a long-serving U.S. Senator from Alabama, Sessions was also instrumental in the defeat of several high-profile immigration bills.

During his time in the cabinet so far, he has magnetized public attention during several PR crises, including the travel ban executive orders he oversaw. As Attorney General, he is seen as both an envoy to Trump’s populist base and a top target of his political opposition.

3. Political affiliation

Some administrations staff at least one cabinet office with someone from the opposite political party. Bush 43 picked Norman Mineta, a Democrat, as his first Secretary of Transportation. Similarly, Obama made Republican Chuck Hagel his second Secretary of Defense. These PR moves can be interpreted as attempts to foster bipartisanship, especially in the wake of a close election.

To date, the Trump Administration contains no such individuals, although both Sonny Perdue (Agriculture) and Trump himself were Democrats in the distant past. This status quo could change over the course of the Trump presidency as the White House courts positive PR among Democrats and independents.
This chart, showing rising job disapproval ratings over time, underscores the Trump admin’s need for savvy PR.

Beyond the cabinet: How presidents shape PR campaigns

The cabinet is one cog in the larger PR machinery of a presidency. Some of its other important parts include the Office of the Press Secretary, presidential surrogates (e.g., Congresspeople from the same party, advisers, et al., who go on TV), and direct engagement from the president on social media platforms. All three of these PR channels have been instrumental so far to the character of the Trump Administration.

Office of the Press Secretary

The Press Secretary has played a more active PR role than in past administrations, with current officeholder Sean Spicer defending presidential actions while also pushing new talking points and updates on executive and legislative initiatives. Spicer is prominent enough to have become a recurring focus of “Saturday Night Live” skits and to have several of his phrases – such as emphasizing a statement by adding “Period.” to the end of it – enter into popular usage.

TV surrogates

Many networks now feature a mix of pundits associated with both major political parties. There are Trump surrogates on every channel from CNN to Fox News. While some are former campaign staffers or lifelong conservative commentators, others include well-known elected officials such as former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani and 1990s-era Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. As with cabinet secretaries, the notoriety of the surrogate can make or break the PR message being delivered, by forming specific associations for the public between the administration and notable people.

Social media

The Trump White House has been highly engaged with the public on both Twitter and Facebook, more so than past administrations. This approach is often marketed as a PR coup in which the president is going directly to the people instead of using intermediaries. The vast reach of these accounts, with millions of followers apiece, makes them potentially powerful, although the lack of a “filter” can make the posted content polarizing.

Knowledge of public relations is crucial at a time when government officials are reshaping their PR strategies from the cabinet level down to social media accounts. Learn more by visiting the George Washington University Master’s in Strategic Public Relations program page.

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