Matthew Schwartz
Matthew Schwartz

The partisan rancor that characterized U.S. politics in 2018 picked up right where it left off as the new year kicked in.

Democrats have taken charge of the House of Representatives and are likely to make President Trump’s life more difficult via subpoenas and, quite possibly, calls for his impeachment. What’s more, there are 17 separate and ongoing Trump-related investigations from at least seven different prosecutors.

Considering Trump’s penchant for chaos — not to mention his unwavering support among many GOP voters — Nostradamus would be hard-pressed to predict what comes next. If the impasse over the Federal government shutdown is any indication, things are bound to get uglier very quickly.

Trump is digging his heels in. Less than two days after the Democrats took control of the House, he warned that he’ll keep the government closed “for years” unless Congress provides $5.6 billion to build a wall along the southern border. (He made his case for a border wall last night in a televised address from the Oval Office.)

Communicators need to watch how things unfold in Washington closely. Now more than ever, the private sector has an opportunity to draw sharp distinctions between corporate behavior — and how companies communicate — and the sideshow in the nation’s capital. It’s not a terribly high bar, of course.

Here are a few tips for PR pros to consider.

• As the dialogue in Washington takes on an increasingly nasty tenor, strive for a moderate, even-keeled tone throughout company communications, regardless of the audience or media channel. People are exhausted from all the dysfunction in Washington and want cooler heads to prevail. Against the Beltway backdrop, brands have an opportunity to make a bigger impact in the public square by having civil discourse, demonstrating respect for their competitors and critics and sharing with their constituents how the company contributes to society in positive ways.

• Even providing the benefit of the doubt, President Trump seems to have a torturous relationship with the truth. Sure, politicians lie, but Trump has turned it into an art form, averaging more than 15 falsehoods a day in 2018, according to the Washington Post. With many people stunned by the constant prevaricating coming from the White House, brands should turn up the dial on candor and transparency. Every action has a reaction, and people may be growing weary of the constant superlatives Trump attaches to himself. That dynamic also presents an opportunity for brands to consider a “warts-and-all” approach to their communications. That means being frank with stakeholders, without disclaimers, dissembling and/or calculated omissions. Don’t give constituents any excuses to question your veracity or doubt your sincerity.

• If the media were to somehow disappear tomorrow, President Trump would start gasping for air. He loves the media. But, to play to his base, he demonizes the press as “fake news” and an “enemy of the people.” As any C-suite executive worth his or her salt knows, the media aren’t the enemy. Smart executives appreciate that the media both giveth and taketh away. When the opportunity presents itself, companies should talk about the vital role the media play in an open society and why it’s important to cultivate relationships with reporters. To be sure, many brands and organizations often have an adversarial relationship with the media at times, but companies do themselves no favors when they caricature the media and play the victim card.

• Another way for brands to distinguish themselves from Washington is to do a better job emphasizing their corporate philanthropy and volunteerism and touting the results.

Perhaps we’ve reached this point because of something in the water supply that flows through Pennsylvania Avenue. Or maybe it’s what American historian Richard Hofstadter famously called the “paranoid style in American politics.”

Whatever. Amidst the Trump Presidency — and what often seems like a determined effort by the administration to infantilize the country — brands and organizations have an opportunity to be the adults in the room. They can boost their credibility by communicating more forthrightly with their constituents, not cowering in the face of legitimate criticism and paying extra-careful attention to their tone.


Matthew Schwartz is director of content at Stanton. He can be reached at [email protected].