Advice to Republican Congressmen and Senators on Messaging in the Age of President Donald Trump and Beyond
President Trump has effectively been on his own against the Democrats’ and media’s criticism. Few House and Senate Republicans have publicly supported and defended him. Even worse, some Republicans have consistently attacked him. President Trump has defended himself on Twitter and in speeches. Partly due to these explanations, his popularity continues to rise. On May 12, 2019, President Trump’s approval rating was 42%. The approval rating for Congressional Republicans on April 19, 2019 was 27%.
In contrast to Republican Congressmen and Senators, President Trump has been the ultimate team player for the Party. He supports and campaigns for Congressmen and Senators even when they have not been publicly supporting him. He also consistently gives credit to the legislative branch, and, during celebrations for the passage of legislation at the White House, he has Congressmen and Senators speak.
The lack of Republican support for the President has two negative consequences. First, the President is forced to defend himself and is diverted from pushing his policy agendas. Second, unanswered attacks againt the President drag down the Republican Party. One can argue that Republicans would have done better in the 2018 Midterm Election if Republicans had defended the President, his initiatives, and the Party.
To remedy the lack of support for President Trump and failure of Republican messaging in general, Republicans should adopt the following public relations strategy. While the first five points are Trump-specific, they should hold true for future Republican Presidents.
1. If Republicans don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all. The Republicans should have learned this maxim in kindergarten, but, unfortunately, it is necessary to repeat this advice to them. The media and the Democrats love nothing more than a Republican attacking a Republican because it prevents the media or Democrats from having to do so.
2. Don’t critique President Trump’s tweets or comments. When Republicans respond, their comments inevitably involve attacking or distancing themselves from the President. The better response is to not say anything. Let the President speak for himself; after all, the comments are the President’s and not anyone else’s. The best response to a reporter’s question is to ignore it, say “no comment,” or state “I don’t speak for the President.”
3. Voice criticism in private. Congressmen and Senators will inevitably disagree with the President on substance, style, or policy. Not all Republicans have to agree with each other, and different perspectives are important to shaping good policy. Rather than airing complaints in public, however, Congressmen and Senators should go to the President in private, discuss the issue, and come to a resolution. Congressmen and Senators might think it boosts their popularity by going to the media, but, in reality, it makes them look petty. Furthermore, their complaints hurt the Party and its policies.
4. Compliment the President. Republicans need to point out what they like about President Trump. They should mention the positive effects of his initiatives and passed legislation, their positive working relationships with him, and his unprecedented outreach to Congress.
5. Defend President Trump against attacks. When President Trump has been attacked, Republicans have responded with a pattern of deafening silence. For example, throughout the Special Counsel investigation, few Republicans fought against the charges of collusion and obstruction. Even after the Mueller Report went public, many Republicans have stayed quiet. Republicans should study how Democrats defended past Democrat Presidents against Republican attacks. Republicans need to follow the Democrat’s example of defending their President.
6. Explain Republican initiatives and educate the public. Republicans need to explain the Party’s policy positions, the successes of prior initiatives, and the benefits of free market capitalism. If Republicans do not speak up for themselves, Americans may not know the truth about the Party.
7. Criticize the Democrats. The flip side of point #6 is that Republicans should point out the detrimental effects of past Democrat legislation. They should hold Democrats accountable for their proposals, policies, statements, and support of Socialism. If Republicans do not discuss the flaws in Democrat policies, Americans may not learn about them.
8. Be cheerleaders for America. One of President Trump’s unheralded successes is how he has revived pride and patriotism in the United States. Republicans should follow the President’s lead. This positive attitude will benefit the country and be a sharp contrast to the Democrats’ disparagement.
The media, most schools, and pop culture attack President Trump and Republicans, inaccurately explain the President and the Party’s views, and do not tell of their successes. Republicans need to counteract this narrative. They need to stop attacking and defend the President, explain the President’s and Party’s successes, and criticize the Democrats when appropriate. This public relations strategy will help the Republican Party (and the country) in the 2020 Election and beyond.
NOTE: My article "Suggestions to Improve White House Messaging" (from July 31, 2017) can be found here.