Democrats are winning the communications battle over the partial shutdown of the federal government, and the longer it goes on, the more Republicans will find themselves in a corner, say most Washington, DC-based public affairs pros interviewed by PRWeek.
However, some experts note that variables are coming into play that could swing the momentum in either direction.
So far, polls show that more Americans blame the Republicans than the Democrats for the unpopular shutdown. By most accounts, the Democrats have effectively branded this the “Republican shutdown.” In speeches and media interviews, President Barack Obama has hammered the point that the shutdown is being driven by an extremist fraction of the Republican Party obsessed with dismantling the Affordable Care Act.
“A part of what the Democrats are trying to communicate is that this is an ideological battle,” says Jano Cabrera, EVP at Burson-Marsteller, who served as communications director for the Democratic National Committee during the 2004 election. “They are saying, ‘Look, the Republican Party is holding the economy hostage over politics.'”
Both sides are engaging in “gesture politics” to illustrate their points. For instance, Obama called top congressional leaders to the White House for a meeting on Wednesday, likely knowing full well that it would not result in significant progress.
“The best thing that could have happened from that meeting for the Democrats was to have the Republicans leaving the meeting and firing off shots to the White House,” explains Cabrera. “It was a no-win situation for the Republicans. They can't avoid the meeting because they'd seem unreasonable. But they didn't come back with an alternative, which also made them seem unreasonable.”
For its part, the Republicans have tried to place blame on the Senate, as well as the president's unwillingness to negotiate. But the message has hardly been unified, says Rob Rehg, president of Edelman's Washington office.
“Some of the party has been pushing to end Obamacare, and they're not budging from that. Then you have [Sen.] Rand Paul (R-KY) trying to broaden the conversation to deficit control and spending, and then you have [House Speaker John] Boehner who is every which way,” says Rehg. “It is an impossible message box – you can't follow it.”
For the Republicans to obtain any kind of political or messaging victory, he says the party needs to move beyond messaging points on the Affordable Care Act – known more often as “Obamacare” to its opponents – to create a bigger conversation about spending.
“Voters get Obama isn't going to change the act – it's the law – so the issue of spending would have more resonance,” explains Rehg. “They'd not only have a chance of getting some sort of deal constructed, but would also be much more effective with the public in their messaging.”
Mike Panetta, partner at Beekeeper Group, tells PRWeek that “the Republicans have done a horrible job with communications – they have completely messed this up.”
“They had an opportunity to get messages out this week that would have been very beneficial to them,” he adds. “But they went off the rails about making everything about Obamacare when they could have highlighted victories on holding the line on spending.”
Panetta says the Republicans could have emphasized all the technical glitches that occurred when the healthcare exchanges went live on Tuesday, but that story has been buried by media coverage of the shutdown.
Still, a number of PR pros note that the GOP has effectively messaged to its core constituents. In an age of social media – and media outlets with clear political biases – the party does not need to worry as much about messaging that would resonate with the largest media outlets, says Nick Ragone, director of Ketchum's Washington office.
“Each side is playing to their base with their messaging,” he says. “It is so polarized that so long as each side is speaking to their base, they think they are accomplishing something, which is why we're at a stalemate.”
The coming narrative shift
If the shutdown extends into another week, PR pros expect the narrative to shift. Media outlets will begin focusing more often on how everyday Americans are being hurt by the impasse, rather than simply reporting on the politics of it. That coverage will engage a more widespread, less politically polarized audience – in other words, people who don't typically follow politics closely.
“I think we're about to see this debate, which is both political and inherently philosophical, through the lens of personal stories of Americans who have seen the services they depend on interrupted,” says Greg Hitt, head of the crisis and public affairs practice at Hill+Knowlton Strategies' Washington office. He previously worked as a journalist covering Congress and the White House for The Wall Street Journal and Dow Jones.
“I've noticed already a story about a search for a missing hiker in Idaho interrupted, and stories about patients who would otherwise be enrolled in clinical trials with [National Institutes of Health],” he explains. “And those stories will be very powerful. How each party navigates that and responds to them will be really important. Those stories will shape the political process, and it will be important for neither side to be seen as exploiting individual cases.”
Hitt was in Washington during the last government shutdown in 1996, which helped to solidify a second term for President Bill Clinton, but he is cautious about assuming this impasse will play out the same way. He says the Republican Party is larger than it used to be, and it is simply too early to tell who will win the communications battle.
“I think you need to be cautious about how far you extend into that [Clinton] narrative,” he says. “But if the current president is able to articulate a clear vision and come through this with his principals intact and an outcome that is meaningful for the country, there is no doubt it will be good for the White House.”
But both sides have a longer game to play, Hitt adds.
Obama has already started to focus on the economy as he tries to tie economic hardships to the Republican Party's single-minded focus on Obamacare. On the third day of the shutdown, the White House schedule said Obama planned to visit a local construction company “and will highlight the impacts that a shutdown and default would have on our economy and our nation's small businesses.”
Michael Robinson, partner at Chlopak Leonard Schechter, says he also does not see one side winning the communications battle over another yet. But he says it will be important for the parties to be seen as sympathetic, and most importantly reasonable, as more people are affected by the stalemate.
“The rhetoric on both sides needs to move toward the middle, and I think we'll start to hear phrases like ‘shared sacrifice,' ‘consolidation,' and ‘trying to work together,'” says Robinson. “That kind of language will become important as more people – the American public at large – feel the pain of the shutdown.”