Strategic Communications and the Department of Homeland Security: Immigration Policies, Mixed Messaging, and Information Fratricide

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Jonathan Graham

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

Many Americans disapproved of the immigration enforcement policies of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) during the Trump administration. This thesis begins by asking what can be learned about DHS’s communications strategy during controversial policy rollouts and whether a negative perception of those policies can be improved. Previous research has not examined in depth the nature of DHS’s public-facing communications on these issues (rather than researching the policies themselves). This thesis targets the gap in understanding about DHS’s strategic communications efforts in contentious areas of immigration policy.

As case studies, the thesis examines the parent-child separation policy from 2018 and the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) program from 2019. How DHS conducted strategic communications about these controversial policies is related to public and stakeholder perception of these policies. The research question focuses on how DHS conducts strategic communications about such controversial policies, and which measurement and evaluation (M&E) model can be used to gauge the effectiveness of communications output. To answer this question, the thesis reviews the literature on public communications theories and builds upon it to develop a working model of measuring the effectiveness of output of strategic communications. The research methodology adopts an outsider viewpoint and employs a qualitative media content analysis of high-level public communications of DHS officials. Source documents consist of published media articles, congressional reports, non-governmental organization (NGO) reports, official DHS press releases, and other official DHS communications.

None of the existing evaluation models described in the literature were satisfactory for the analysis required in this thesis. They are fairly high level and do not offer enough specificity to analyze actual examples of communications output. Thus, the development of a new model serves several important purposes. First, it is useful for analyzing the particular communications at issue in the two case studies. Second, it may be of future use for practitioners or researchers seeking to evaluate a law enforcement agency’s communications output. Third, the development of a new model allows for the inclusion of critical concepts from the literature, including Good and Bad Strategy, information fratricide, participatory and emergent strategy, timing of messaging, and the Dark Side of communications.[1]

The model developed for this thesis is the Stakeholder-Centric Communications Output Evaluation Model for Government, depicted in Figure 1. It has a primary focus on stakeholders and publics as both informing the communications strategy and being the recipient of communications output. The model contains general sections pertaining to the strategy, messaging, and language of an organization’s desired or emergent communications output, which roughly correspond to an agency’s strategic, tactical, and operational communications decisions.

Evaluation of the two policy case studies using the model demonstrates that DHS used messaging which was at times inconsistent and contradictory. The parent-child separation policy represents the prototypical example of information fratricide, which occurs when one component or official of an agency releases public information or statements which undercut the messaging of another component or official.[2] This policy went by several names: zero tolerance, parent-child separation, and family separation. It remains unclear what the precise motivations were for enacting the policy, and the thesis examines the various justifications. In addition to lack of clarity about motivations for the policy, messaging about fundamental aspects of the policy emanated simultaneously from multiple levels of authority. The mixed messaging regarding many facets of the policy caused public and stakeholder confusion and outrage, courtroom losses, and may have resulted in DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen’s ouster.

By contrast, communications on MPP showed a progression in the ability of DHS to successfully engage in strategic communications related to this enforcement effort. These communications were more consistent, both vertically through time and horizontally across different speakers. The inconsistencies in messaging previously seen during the parent-child separation policy were noticeably absent in the MPP-related communications. Key officials issued consistent messaging and thereby did not engage in information fratricide, did not undermine each other’s efforts to achieve policy successes, and did not speak publicly with messaging that was different than the positions the agency had previously taken.

After evaluating these two cases, several of DHS’s key strengths in strategic communications are determined to be: (1) creating strong, emotional messaging; (2) utilizing awareness of likely pending outrage (emotion) and litigation, developed from the agency’s prior experiences; and (3) capitalizing on diplomatic successes and partnerships with regional nation partners. While the use of strong messaging was arguably one of the administration’s communications strengths, it was used at an inappropriate time during the zero tolerance policy. In an appropriate situation, use of such messaging could be part of a powerful strategy to achieve favorable communications outcomes. As events actually unfolded in 2018, however, it is not clear why the use of strong messaging was needed.

Under Rumelt’s conception of Good and Bad Strategy, a mismatch between the use of key strengths and appropriate pivot points in the external environment is not a successful application of Good Strategy.[3] With MPP, however, the opposite occurred. The messaging was more refined and less emotional, signaling an awareness that restraint was needed due to the possible negative public reaction about the rollout of the program and the potential of future litigation. The use of such restraint was well-timed during the policy rollout and allowed the program to expand to location after location and scale up operations. These two case studies represent progression in the ability of DHS to successfully engage in strategic communications on enforcement policy.

Finally, the thesis considers generalized guidance for future communications policy within DHS, discussing such potential future policy action through the use of if-then policy statements. A summary of these recommendations is listed in Table 1 of this executive summary.

In summary, this thesis targets a gap in understanding of appropriate methods to evaluate communications output. When controversial policies are involved, the communications supporting a policy rollout will never be perfect. With careful, thoughtful planning and appropriate evaluation along the way, an agency can discover and make appropriate use of effective strategy in its communications.

 

Table 1.           Strategic Communications Policy Recommendations

 

Policy Issues Recommendations
Future unpopular policies:

 

If DHS wants to roll out a potentially unpopular immigration policy in the future, then prudent actions in the area of strategic communications to ensure the success of communications objectives include:

Identifying communications strengths in advance
Devoting significant resources towards these strengths
Considering information end-states
Identifying appropriate policy justifications before messaging
Replacing existing unpopular policies:

 

If DHS wants to replace an already unpopular policy with a more palatable version, then appropriate communications methods include:

Timely acknowledging and taking ownership of prior problems
Varying the use of clarity or ambiguity in messaging to the agency’s advantage
Reframing issues to distance a new policy from a problematic one
Political appointee role:

 

If a future administration or DHS leadership appoints so-called hardliner or politically charged figures to highly visible positions, then the role of such officials in the development or coordination of messaging can include:

Coordinating among agency leadership who takes the lead on public communications
Ensuring that public statements of lower-level, non-leadership officials are completely consistent with leadership-approved messaging
Designating a lead agency or department for messaging decisions during multi-agency policy rollouts
Using inter-agency clearance processes to vet release of controversial policy details or arguments
Undisclosed policy pilots:

 

If DHS conducts future pilots of controversial policies in an undisclosed manner, then prudent safeguards to minimize fallout if such policies are later made public include:

Justifying non-disclosure with appropriate reasoning to withstand public or judicial scrutiny
Expecting and preparing for eventual full disclosure
Incorporating disclosure planning into information end-states
Preparing for accusations that the agency has intentionally released inaccurate, conflicting, incomplete, or otherwise unsavory information

 

 

[1] Richard Rumelt, “The Perils of Bad Strategy,” McKinsey Quarterly, June 1, 2011, https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/strategy-and-corporate-finance/our-insights/the-perils-of-bad-strategy; Ronald E. Dulek and Kim Sydow Campbell, “On the Dark Side of Strategic Communication,” International Journal of Business Communication 52, no. 1 (January 2015): 123, https://doi.org/10.1177/2329488414560107.

[2] Getting Better at Strategic Communication, House, 112th Cong., 1st sess., July 12, 2011, 5–8, https://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/testimonies/2011/RAND_CT366.pdf; Christopher Paul, Strategic Communication: Origins, Concepts, and Current Debates (Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 2011), 6–7.

[3] Rumelt, “Perils of Bad Strategy.”

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