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Spotlight on … Rachel McCleery

Spotlight on … Rachel McCleery

May 2022

Rachel McCleery
U.S. Manufacturing Policy Director
Ford Motor Co.

You worked for two years for the late Congressman John Dingell, who served in Congress for 59 years — the longest serving member of Congress in American history. With all the talk about term limits, what can you say about the value of institutional knowledge?

John Dingell possessed a wealth of institutional knowledge. At the time he represented my hometown of Ida, a very small farming community in Southeast Michigan. I had the very good fortune of being an intern in his office and then was hired as a staff assistant. One of the real benefits of having a safe district is that he wasn’t constantly fundraising and campaigning. This meant he could put much of his focus on public policy and not on electoral politics. And he knew a great deal about policy, and he cared very deeply about it. I was his driver a few times, and I remember something he said to me once. He said, “We are put on this earth to help each other,” and he dedicated those years to helping other people. There’s something to be said for term limits, but there is also a great deal to be said for institutional knowledge and being able to prioritize good policy over politics.

You also worked on the Senate Finance Committee.  What did you learn about policy that you wish other government relations professionals understood?

The process of policymaking isn’t nearly as neat and organized as some think. We’re all flawed human beings that adapt to a constantly changing landscape. This includes staff working on the nuts and bolts of serious issues. A lot of policy decisions are made quickly, as staff responds to a range of pressures, constituents, concerns and deadlines. When people try to read between the lines, they often imagine the process is more rational than it usually is. Policymakers are people first just like us doing the best they can under the immediate circumstances. Separately, the public sometimes assumes that policy in Washington is crafted in a vacuum — that decisions are made and then the policy is imposed on the rest of the government and society. That’s simply not the case.

You had an exciting few days back in May of 2020 when President Trump visited your plant in Ypsilanti, Mich., and didn’t want to wear a mask. What can you tell us about that?

The President had come to tour the plant which had been repurposed to manufacture medical supplies for the pandemic — ventilators, in this case. We had just seven days to prepare for his visit, which is typical of presidential and vice-presidential visits. These types of events come together pretty quickly, and this one came with some controversy, because it was early on in the COVID-19 response. We were requiring our workers and anyone coming on Ford property to wear masks. The media was intensely interested, and we had to pull together our team and prepare to handle all the communications and logistics for the visit, which was going to be a big media event that — depending on how the President handled it — could affect the behaviors of Americans watching.

And he wore a mask but only part of the time, right? The stories quoted him saying he “didn’t want to give the press the pleasure of seeing it.”

We prepared for all contingencies, which a good team will do. A statement was issued from Bill Ford, our chairman, who “encouraged President Trump to wear a mask when he arrived. He wore a mask during a private viewing of three Ford GTs from over the years. The President later removed the mask for the remainder of the visit.” And the press quoted the statement in their coverage. Moving swiftly with precise action is really all you can do in a high-pressure situation that’s constantly evolving. The takeaway from the experience, applicable to all crisis communications, is you assemble a cross-functional team of talented professionals as quickly as possible. The team should draw on a range of expertise and seniority throughout the organization, and I was fortunate to be able to put my confidence, and Ford’s, in the team’s support.

At Michigan State, you minored in music. Tell us more.

I was trained as a classical vocalist, and I thought I was going to be a choir teacher. But in high school and college, I volunteered at Holiday Camp, a summer camp for children with disabilities in Monroe County, Michigan. Some of my campers were children and adults with autism. That’s when I got involved with Autism Speaks, advocating for insurance coverage for families with autism. During that time, I realized I love advocacy — and didn’t want to become a choir teacher after all. I wanted to be part of communicating and shaping policies I cared about, and I’m glad I did.

Reach Rachel at [email protected] or on Twitter at @R_McCleery.

Rachel McCleery

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