Did May’s Visit to the White House Come up PR Trumps?
Back in January, as the prime minister settled into her seat on the plane out of Washington, she probably thought the meeting with President Trump went pretty well.
Indeed, the US trip was an example of clever strategic planning and careful communications in action. After ingratiating herself with the Republicans at the Philadelphia conference, May went into her meeting with Donald Trump in a position of public strength. Not only did she manage to get him to commit to a public backing of NATO and a possible trade deal, she even persuaded him to put Winston Churchill’s bust back in the Oval Office.
But now that the dust has had a little time to settle, what does it all mean in terms of May’s image?
Despite the cringeworthy display of hand-holding, May’s visit to the White House was, all in all, a PR success.
But this quickly unravelled on her return to the UK, when Trump announced a ban on the residents of certain – mostly Muslim – countries entering the US. With this statement, he took his position as the world’s most toxic figure to new levels.
The announcement was publicly criticised by world leaders including Germany’s Angela Merkel, France’s Francois Hollande and former President Barack Obama. But May failed to engage with the issue at first, describing it as the ‘US’s business’. This showed a failure to challenge Trump as she said she would, and was interpreted as a major weakness in the media.
Understandably, May was initially reluctant to be critical of her new ‘friend’. But by the time Number 10 realised its mistake and released a late night statement daring to disagree with Trump, it was spectacularly inadequate. The damage had been done.
The icing on the cake
But there was more to come. During her visit to the White House, Conservative Party Prime Minister Theresa May extended an invite to Trump to make an official state visit to Britain later in 2017. A state visit would involve an official banquet and meeting with the Queen, who is the head of state. Trump gladly accepted.
This led to a public outcry, with more than 1.3 million people signing a petition calling for it to be scrapped. Foreign Office officials past and present joined the uproar, claiming it’s unfair to put the Queen in such a difficult position.
From a comms point of view, May is aligning herself with Trump the individual, not with the United States, and it could be fatal to her political credibility. The problem is she looked at the prize – a trade deal – rather than the context and the fact she’s dealing with one’s of the world’s most divisive figures.
She might get her trade deal, but at what price? Will Trump’s toxicity rub off on her and be a fatal blow to May’s credibility?
From a PR/comms point of view, the prime minister’s US trip was a partial hit, in that her objective was to begin building a relationship with Trump and the new administration and organise a trade deal that will benefit the UK over the long-term. There will inevitably be a short-term reputational hit with the backlash over Trump’s visa ban, but Number 10 will always have been aware that there would be a furore over something that was done in the early days of his presidency.
Taking a long-term view is one of the hallmarks of the way May governs. This has already been demonstrated by her commitment to a swift Brexit, despite the delays caused by the Supreme Court declaring that Article 50 can only be invoked by parliament and not by the prime minister herself, and despite the House of Lords likely filibustering. Number 10 has already shown it’s prepared to play the long game to get what it wants.
But the protests against the travel ban, and the petition calling for Trump’s state visit to be ‘downgraded’ continues to gather pace. It may be time for a tough call with our oldest ally, testing the mettle of the prime minister and her media operation.