It’s day 11 of the government shutdown, and Washington seems no closer to resolution of any kind. As each side tries to message its way out of blame, some things are indisputable:
1. Neither side will come out smelling like roses, but the GOP is getting hit harder, as noted by the Washington Post and the Pew Research Center. Yelling at federal employees, unpaid but working anyway, doesn’t help. From a PR perspective, if this is about conservative principles – if fighting Obamacare is worth the pain and sacrifice a government shutdown inflicts on America – Republicans should say so. Shutting down the government and attacking the President for keeping national parks closed doesn’t fly.
2. Words matter, and so does message discipline. Obamacare has been (for so long and so consistently) called socialist, death squad-y, budget-exploding and indeed, the worst piece of legislation in American history (take that, Fugitive Slave Act) that it’s hard for average Americans to support it – no wonder most don’t. But as Jimmy Kimmel not-very-scientifically showed, they do support its principles. Does it matter? A truism in politics and communications: when Democrats (or anyone) start arguing details – individual vs. small business exclusions – they’ve already conceded the argument.
The coming debate about the debt ceiling is another example. “Debt ceiling” sounds like it’s a mechanism to allow new spending, when in fact it’s what allows the United States to pay the bill for expenses it has already incurred (and approved – by this Congress). If you want to curb spending, you need to do it when you pull out your credit card, not when it’s time to pay the bill. If the Democrats were smart, they’d come up with a new expression. Death ceiling, anyone?
3. Most interesting has been the response of the citizenry – or rather, that the response has been so passionate. It seems average Americans have finally had enough: some reactions to the shutdown have been moving, some have been infuriating and many just funny (even brands have joined the fray). But here’s my favorite: drunkdialcongress.org (check out the talking points). Those of us who follow, and care deeply about, politics have always complained about the apathy of the American people. Is this the turning point? We can only hope.
The bottom line is this: sometimes you have a PR problem, and sometimes you have a problem. The problems in Washington have been chronic, severe and going on for far too long, and PR isn’t going to solve them. And as so many brands and companies have shown us fixing what’s wrong is the best message of all.
Shona Sabnis is senior vice president, Edelman Public Affairs in New York. Previously, Shona worked on Capitol Hill for various members of Congress and served in the Clinton Administration as a speech writer at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).
Barack Obama image by Daniel Borman. John Boehner image by Gage Skidmore.