Editor’s Note: Kara Alaimo, an assistant professor of public relations at Hofstra University, is the author of “Pitch, Tweet, or Engage on the Street: How to Practice Global Public Relations and Strategic Communication.” She was spokeswoman for international affairs in the Treasury Department during the Obama administration. Follow her on Twitter @karaalaimo. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
On Thursday, first lady Melania Trump wore a jacket scrawled with the words “I really don’t care. Do U?” as she climbed the stairs to her plane, which was bound for Texas. She was on a surprise trip to the US border with Mexico to learn about the plight of migrant children held in a shelter there.
We can puzzle and argue over her reasoning in wearing, in this context, such a callous message on her back as she left to visit children detained miles from home and family, but there is no way to get around the optics here. On its face it was a shocking moment of poor judgment that will do even more damage to America’s reputation, coming just after a wave of outrage at the US government for its practice of forcibly taking immigrant children away from their parents.
(On Wednesday, President Donald Trump announced he would end that policy, but left out any concrete plans to reunite the thousands of children who have already been separated from their families.)
Here is the problem: The role of the first family is TO care – about the country and the world – including about immigrants who come to America for opportunity, just like Melania Trump did. And indeed it was reported that she was a driving force behind the President’s decision to end the practice of splitting up families (her statement against separation preceded that of other first ladies). But consider that Melania Trump, a former fashion model, knows exactly what she is wearing. How are we to trust her sincerity now after this jaw-dropping affront?
The first lady’s communications director, Stephanie Grisham, claimed that “there was no hidden message” behind the graffiti scrawl on the $39 Zara coat, which Melania took off before deplaning in Texas, and then put on again for the trip home. If Grisham is correct, it would also seem to rule out the possibility that the words on the coat were aimed at anyone else – for example the reporters who watched her board her plane.
So when President Trump later contradicted Grisham by tweeting a claim that her message “refers to the Fake News Media,” it seemed clear the spin to fix this mistake had begun. According to the President, “Melania has learned how dishonest they are, and she truly no longer cares!”
Grisham also argued in a statement to CNN that it’s unfair to dwell on Melania’s sartorial choices rather than the substance of the trip. “After today’s important visit to Texas, I hope the media isn’t going to choose to focus on her wardrobe.”
I agree with this usually – and have publicly argued that journalists should focus on what women do in the world rather than their bodies.
Not this time. Melania chose to display a statement in plain English on her body while representing the United States on an official trip in her official capacity as first lady. The content of her “message” – of THIS message – is most certainly fair game for public comment.
Grisham also tweeted this: “Today’s visit w the children in Texas impacted @flotus greatly. If media would spend their time & energy on her actions & efforts to help kids - rather than speculate & focus on her wardrobe - we could get so much accomplished on behalf of children. #SheCares #ItsJustAJacket.”
Excuse me? The media isn’t preventing the first lady from helping children – and reporters and commentators like me can’t do a lot for the kids who are currently being held apart from their parents.
You know who can? Melania Trump.
Even if the coat was a terrible mistake and Melania was oblivious to the blunt message she was sending with it, it’s too late, the world has seen it, the damage is done. But there IS one thing she can do now to make us believe her trip to the immigrant children’s shelter was not a mixed-up political performance that came with a costume: She needs to demand that her husband do everything in his power to reunite the children with their parents. Immediately.
Given the maelstrom of horror over the child separation policy (and massively bad press for the President) that preceded Melania Trump’s trip, it strains the imagination to believe Grisham’s story that this was all a big misunderstanding. A tweet claiming “#SheCares” isn’t very convincing.
If the first lady wants people to believe the opposite of the message she displayed today, she’s going to need to prove she really DOES care.
Bring these families back together, Mrs. Trump. The world will be watching.