Presidential executive orders are often vehicles for public relations efforts, despite being some of the driest documents in government. Laden with phrases like, "for the purpose of conducting proceedings authorized under title 8, chapter 12, subchapter II, United States Code," or "the secretary shall take appropriate action to require that," they challenge PR practitioners to explain them in plain English.
The pomp and circumstance of signing an executive order, however, always makes a great photo op. The ornate prestige of the Oval Office and the sober and serious mien of suited officials standing guard communicate gravitas and decisive action, regardless of the impenetrable legalese on the page. So it was with the Executive Order on Border Security and Immigration Enforcement Improvements, signed by President Donald Trump last week.
The public relations value of this order, however, is decidedly mixed and largely insular, when compared to the damage done to relationships and perceptions abroad. Some aspects of this particular executive order have serious political and ethical consequences. Suspending immigration of Syrian refugees has been condemned as unnecessary and inhumane. Syrian refugees undergo a long and invasive vetting process that lasts as long as two years, and no Syrian refugee has committed an act of terrorism against the U.S.
The puzzling choice to sign the order on Holocaust Remembrance Day sparked moral outrage and comparisons to the June 1939 St. Louis incident, when the U.S. government turned away a ship of more than 900 Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany. This tragic decision risks undermining decades of public relations and public diplomacy work cultivating an image and a brand: America as global leader in humanitarian concern for the suffering and support for human rights.
Careless drafting and abrupt implementation led to widespread confusion, as dual nationals, foreigners who already possess visas, corporations with foreign employees, and others scramble to implement an order that is poorly understood. The perception that the order targets Muslims will offend audiences whose nationality spares them from the travel ban, but who are members of an affinity group—faith—with those affected. American diplomats have spent a decade and a half rebuilding perceptions that the U.S. welcomes foreign travelers, following the abrupt border closures caused by 9/11. Those closures, however, were logical and explicable; the actions flowing from the recent executive order strike foreign audiences as unnecessary, driven by prejudice, and an incomprehensible self-inflicted wound.
Another provision of the order suspends a program under which someone who has "passed the test" and received a visa can renew that visa without having to undertake the entire application and interview process a second time. Managerially, it is a spectacular waste of both the time of consular officers in America’s embassies overseas and taxpayer dollars. Instead of searching for genuine threats to national security, understaffed consulates and immigration offices abroad will be spending time re-vetting people previously vetted. As for public image, it will be another source of irritation and confusion for legitimate travelers. Our already-stringent requirements will look all the more unwelcoming and off-putting, encouraging foreigners to consider other options. It will undermine years of messaging on making consular processes more user-friendly and making the U.S. a more amiable destination and damage our credibility.
Finally, the core provisions of the order point to more questionable—read: political—tradeoffs of public relations costs and benefits, particularly when comparing domestic audience gains and foreign audience losses. For all its fulminating about protecting American security, the bulk of the order does little more than suspend immigration while the Departments of State and Homeland Security consult with intelligence agencies and, well, write a report. That report will assess whether current procedures give the U.S. government the information needed to decide whether an applicant is a security threat, and recommend changes.
Any procedures should be routinely reviewed and, when possible, improved—that’s just common sense—but a solid case can be made that existing procedures are strong and get the job done. The most likely outcome is a report that largely validates current practice and may suggest sensible changes—all of which will be the fodder for a vigorous White House public relations campaign to convince the American people that their security is in good hands. That campaign at home will come at a public relations cost abroad. The current order will create a wave of frustration, offense, and confusion among important foreign audiences, hurt our credibility, and make it harder to sustain trust and mutually respectful relationships.
The harm to American credibility on human rights, and foreign assessments of our morals and ethics, flowing from the rejection of Syrian refugees is as yet incalculable. It is fair to say that there is a better than likely chance we will regret that decision in the not-too-distant future.
But it sure was a nice domestic photo op.
Steven Pike is an assistant professor of public relations and public diplomacy at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University. He served for more than 20 years in the U.S. State Department.