Build the wall? The reputational questions never end for companies considering it

The most controversial government project in recent memory is a quagmire of questions about reputation, stockholder and activist anger, and media coverage for contractors applying for the work.

The border between the U.S. and Mexico near San Diego. (Image via Wikimedia Commons).
The border between the U.S. and Mexico near San Diego. (Image via Wikimedia Commons).

Contractors or commercial builders who go to work building President Donald Trump’s proposed wall on the Mexican border—the most controversial government assignment in recent memory—are also accepting a dizzying degree of risk, warn communications experts.

Like the issue of immigration itself, the questions for a company considering building the wall are incredibly complex.

"This is an unprecedented project in terms of scale, political significance, and operating context in which all this is happening," says Harlan Loeb, Edelman’s global practice chair for crisis and risk. "To think you’ve planned for all the risks in all three of those categories, which no one has ever seen before, would be quixotic at best."

Most b-to-b companies like those bidding for the wall contract are normally insulated from consumers, notes Adam Goldberg, founder of Trident DMG and former special associate counsel to President Bill Clinton. In most cases, they only have a few vulnerabilities: boycotts from local and state governments, shareholder activism from the left, and lawsuits from environmental organizations.

"The reputation they care about is the one they have with the entities they contract with, such as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers," Goldberg says. "What voters will care about is job creation, and for this administration with its America First approach, this will be all about ‘Buy American,’ American companies using American steel and American manufacturing."

Companies interested in this contract will have to consider a range of new risks outside of their normal business problems. Loeb identifies "confirmation bias" as the greatest threat facing these contractors.

"Any business, in this case construction, tends to be comfortable with its native business and feels the way it approaches risk works across other kinds of risk," he explains. "They have to overcome that with a multidimensional risk-mapping exercise, so they look at this eyes-wide-open from all directions before they hit the go button. That’s mandatory."

Bids for the first design contracts for the border wall were due to U.S. Customs and Border Protection earlier this week. The number of bidders as well as their identities is unknown per federal regulations, according to an agency spokesperson.

Step one: Look inward
For a contactor that wins the wall business, or part of it, politics will be unavoidable, says Gary Sheffer, senior corporate strategist at Weber Shandwick and former comms chief at GE.

"This intense feeling of who this country is and how we should act has gotten embedded in this project, so emotions and the willingness to mobilize for or against it are incredibly strong," he explains. "The first thing you have to think about is your own people and how they would respond to being involved in the project…You can’t proceed without an upfront, clear explanation to the team about why you’re participating."

After communicating internally, the company would have to make a clear case for why it is taking on the project, Sheffer adds.

"Assuming this is a b-to-b company, then you have to be prepared to deliver a simple, understandable, and compelling perspective on why there is a need for the project and why you’re participating in it," he explains.

One company that probably won’t be working on the project is the world’s largest cement maker, LaFargeHolcim. The French-Swiss company’s CEO had suggested it would be open to supplying material to build the U.S.-Mexico border wall. It also responded to a pre-solicitation notice posted on the U.S. Federal Business Opportunities website in February.

The company is already in the spotlight for the wrong reasons after LaFarge (before its merger with Holcim) copped to "unacceptable" activity in war-torn Syria. French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault delivered a public repudiation of the company.

Ayrault warned LafargeHolcim about the ramifications of taking on the border-wall project in a radio interview.

"It (Lafarge) should reflect upon what its interests are. There are other clients who will be stunned by this," he reportedly said. "Lafarge says it doesn’t do politics...Very well, but I would say companies ... also have social and environmental responsibilities."

Paris’ city government has also voted that it would no longer work with LafargeHolcim if it supplies material for the border wall.

Reached by PRWeek, A LaFargeHolcim spokesperson distanced the company from the wall. 

"Previous comments by the company were in relation to infrastructure projects in general that might be launched in the U.S.," the spokesperson said, via email. "We have not been asked to supply cement to this specific project and have not approached anyone in this context."

Will state or local governments that lean left follow Paris’ lead and refuse to work with a company that works on the border wall? That’s unlikely, according to Goldberg. 

"I supposed it’s possible in a state like California or Vermont, or some really liberal state might say it won’t hire these companies to do these projects, but I haven’t seen any whiff of that," he says. "I think that’s going to be hard to justify if they come forward with the most cost-effective products. Even in very liberal states, I don’t see this having a consequence."

Yet while representative bodies may not distance themselves from a company working on the project, grassroots or liberal organizations across the U.S. are not likely to keep quiet.

The University of California at Berkeley recently passed a resolution stating it would divest from any companies that receives federal funding for planning, building, or providing security for the border wall.

"Californians feel more strongly about this issue than the rest of the country because we’re talking about our friends and neighbors that we’d wall off," says Shannon Coulter, cofounder of #GrabYourWallet, an organization that boycotts Trump-associated brands.

Coulter adds she is working with a group of PHD candidates at Berkeley that are pushing city officials to boycott any company involved with the wall, which she says "would be an effective lever." One city the group is targeting is Oakland.

"It’s very powerful for a city to say it won’t work with a company," she says.

Coulter says #GrabYourWallet, whose website received 2 million unique views last month, is waiting for further developments in the bidding process before it takes action with "volume of outreach."

"Certainly, these companies will hear more from consumers than they’re used to," she predicts.

After signing on the dotted line
For companies that agree to the contract, the "Trump Wall" could have an isolating effect, according to Loeb.

"When a company is in the eye of the storm, even your friends create distance because they don’t want that reputational halo moving over them or their business interests," he says.

Goldberg contends the federal government and the Army Corps of Engineers will absorb the worst of the public’s anger, not the corporations designing or constructing the wall. For example, the Standing Rock protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline largely resulted in a media narrative of an aggressive government oppressing Native Americans, but Energy Transfer Partners, the corporation constructing the pipeline, was barely mentioned.

"If you watch these incredibly cutting and effective takedowns of the notion of a wall by people like John Oliver, they’re not looking at the companies, they’re looking at the U.S. government.," Goldberg says.

Sheffer disagrees, saying the sheer scope of the wall is a difference-maker. Months passed before the Dakota Pipeline gained significant coverage after a steady stream of images and videos showing violent clashes between private security officers and government officials and protesters. In contrast, the public is already aware of the wall because it was a key cornerstone of the Trump campaign, so media saturation would take place instantly.

That’s not to mention the financial risks any company signing on to build the wall would take, such as delays in payment schedules, private-public property disputes, and the backdrop of political showdowns both in Congress and on the border itself. Corporations would even have to be mindful of the contractors they hire, such as security firms. For instance, Loeb asks, would they bring on the same firms government contractors hire in the Middle East?

"You can be sure that will draw attention," Loeb says.

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