Friday, 22 June 2018

Making a statement - the controversy of Melania Trump's choice of jacket

Just a couple of days ago, the world was reeling from images of children in cages at the Texas border, having been taken away from their parents due to immigration issues, with the realisation that more than 2,300 children were separated from their families between mid-April and early June. This sparked shock the world over, with some 18.5 million dollars raised for RAICES in Texas, which serves people in the region defending themselves against deportation in Immigration Court, within days. Then came the announcement that President Trump had signed an executive order to end family separations at the border, seemingly in response to the public outcry.

And today, the media coverage and furore around Mrs Trump’s choice of jacket when visiting children separated from their parents and held at the Texas border has everyone up in arms again.
Rightly so?


The Zara jacket in question says ‘I Really Don’t Care, Do U?’. A bold statement, in any situation, but one that has been judged by many as crass and insensitive given the appointment she was on the way to at the time.

But it’s just a jacket! True, Melania is entitled to wear what she wants and may not have given the jacket a second thought when she threw it on. In fact, I sincerely hope she didn’t give it a thought when she chose it out of all the options she must have had. Because do we really think she was consciously trying to imply she did not care about the plight of the migrant children?

Regardless of the intentions, Melania must have seen or been made aware of the media response when she was first spotted, on the way to meet migrant children, but she still chose to put the jacket back on. This either means that a) she indeed doesn’t care, this time to the response she garnered, and / or b) the people around her can’t see the issue with the choice of clothing either, and haven’t advised her differently. Perhaps they did, but Melania, in true Trump fashion, stuck to her way of doing things. It seems this is how her husband wants to spin it, since citing the choice of jacket as his wife’s commentary on her views on the ‘fake news’ media.

This could be read as the Trumps being accountable for their actions and not relying on a PR spin machine to sort out their problems, and some will like the courage they have in their convictions. But it could also indicate a PR team that also seems a tad out of touch with popular feeling. The First Lady’s press team responded with: "It's a jacket. There was no hidden message. After today's important visit to Texas, I hope the media isn't going to choose to focus on her wardrobe,". Damage limitation or unapologetically defiant? The intentions of Melania’s visit have been overshadowed by her wardrobe choice – but everything someone of her stature is open to scrutiny.
Trump is a divisive person and there’s no doubt that his actions and those of his wife will always cause controversy – but the lack of thought on this particular issue, given the timing and sensitivity of the story, does more to court negativity from those at home and overseas.

Contextual awareness and emotional intelligence are two qualities we expect of our politicians and figures of authority and an instance such as this undermines both. The swell of feeling is supported by fashion brand Wildfang almost immediately launching an "I really care, don't you?" jacket parody, which has already sold out, with sales being pledged to a refugee and immigrant support service based in Texas. I wonder how Zara’s sales will fare? Perhaps, from a reputational standpoint, they should consider removing the item altogether, to reduce risk to their own image because of the new context it has been used within.

It may be ‘just a jacket’, but it’s been a misstep for those who aren’t fans of what Mr Trump stands for, and a misunderstanding for those who agree with his stance – either way, it’s reinforced perceptions.

Post by Senior Lecturer in PR, Kelly O'Hanlon
Media interviews: BBC WM, Drivetime, 22.06.18


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