AIN’T MISBEHAVIN’: February PR History

Written by: Jeff Rodriguez, Historian

A government shutdown is no laughing matter. But government work can be pretty funny, and that was the case in February 1964, when the FBI launched a major investigation into … a song. “Louie Louie” was a demo record cut by in one take by the Kingsmen, a second-tier band. The production was so shoddy it rendered the lyrics unintelligible, so much so that when the song was released in May 1963, one DJ declared it the worst single of the week.

Despite – or rather, because of — its faults, Louie Louie eventually reached No. 2 on the charts. Quite possibly, the song would have faded into obscurity after that. But it was rescued by a highly effective marketing tactic that has withstood the test of time: Someone took offense.

Both youth and parents were concerned that the lyrics were obscene – or rather — that they might be obscene. In January 1964, a headline in the Indianapolis news announced, “Record held naughty, air ban asked.” The next month, a distressed parent wrote to Attorney General Robert Kennedy, worried that “This land of ours is headed for an extreme state of moral degradation.”

And so the feds set about stopping the degradation. The FCC questioned the record label, suspecting that the lyrics were made unintelligible out of “improper motivation.” And FBI agents watched the band on tour and tried playing the song at different speeds. But they were never able to make out the lyrics; curiously, they never thought to interview the lead singer or read the printed lyrics. As the BBC later understated, “this was not the FBI’s finest hour.”

Then, after 30 months and more than 100 pages of documentation, the FBI closed the investigation, concluding that the song was “unintelligible at any speed,” which would make for a great name for a band. Not incidentally, the incomprehensible effect was unintentional. But while the actual lyrics are not the least bit offensive, there IS in fact an obscenity in the song, which can be clearly heard. Hey, don’t feel bad if you missed it – the FBI did, too.

Today, there are more than 1,500 versions of Louie Louie. It’s been included in more than 30 movies, has generated a book and a documentary, and April 11 is International Louie Louie Day. (Shouldn’t that be a federal holiday?) Rolling Stone identified Louie Louie as the fourth most-influential recording of all time; it’s also one of the greatest unintentional PR coups of all time.

Which should help remind us that, while PR pros work very hard to give our clients the best possible exposure, sometimes, our most effective tactic might be to just let others do the work for us. No offense, mind you.

It’s All His Fault: January PR History

Written by: Jeff Rodriguez, Historian

January 11, 1908 was a big day in public relations – as big as the Grand Canyon. In fact, it was the day the Canyon was designated as a national monument.

Strolling around today in our North Face jackets and Merrell hikers, the designation might not seem like such a big deal. But the idea of making the Grand Canyon a National Park had been considered – and despised – for years. In the 1880s, an Arizona newspaper had written an editorial expressing the popular sentiment of the locals, explaining that “whoever fathered such an idea must have been suckled by a sow and raised by an idiot.”

Enter President Teddy Roosevelt. Only Congress has the authority to create a National Park, so pig-suckling Teddy craftily found a way to designate the area as a National Monument. “Let this great wonder of nature remain as it now is,” he once said the area. “You cannot improve on it. But what you can do is keep it for … all who come after you, as the one great sight which every American should see. #bullypulpit #visitourgiftshop.”

Congress finally designated the area a National Park in 1919, and today, the park is visited each year by more than 6 million people, many of whom even get out of their car. And Roosevelt’s legacy is secure: The nonpartisan Miller Center at the University of Virginia calls Teddy “the nation’s first conservationist President,” not to mention the driving force behind the Build-A-Bear corporation.

Which just goes to show, PR pros always need to be ready to think big. And when all the naysayers are telling you to take a hike, well, go right ahead.

Steeped In History: December PR History

Written by: Jeff Rodriguez, Historian

Long before there was a Tea Party, there was the Tea Party.

As we know, the Boston Tea Party was a protest against British taxation, as a band of Colonists disguised as Native Americans boarded three British ships and dumped their stock of tea into the harbor. It occurred on the night of December 16, 1773, and it was one of first great public relations efforts in our history; it also may have been one of the nicest.

According to contemporary media reports, none of the British sailors were hurt, the tea was the only merchandise damaged, and when one of “Indians” was caught trying to steal some, his associates ran him off. The raiders even replaced a padlock that had been broken and helped sweep the decks afterward. If only our visiting relatives were so thoughtful.

The group’s efforts were very well-received by the media. One paper’s headline read, “High Tea in Boston Harbor — Band of ‘Mohawks’ dump 342 chests of Darjeeling off Griffin’s Wharf.” The raid was called a “happy event,” with a number of “brave & resolute men” doing “all in their power to save their country from ruin.”

Missing among the admirers were George Washington and Ben Franklin, the latter of whom reportedly offered to personally reimburse the Brits (no doubt with Benjamins).

As we know, the British responded to the raid by cracking down harder on the Colonists. And the Colonists responded by, well, starting a new nation. Since that triumph, our nation has enjoyed a rich history, one that has been frequently celebrated on film by many great American actors, including Daniel Day-Lewis, Christian Bale, Henry Cavill and Mel Gibson. We did win the war, right?

All of which goes to show: When it comes to great PR, sometimes, it’s okay to go a little bit overboard.

Wanna Get Away? October PR History

When the going gets tough, the tough get going – on a taxpayer-subsidized vacation. And that’s exactly what the executives at insurance giant AIG did in September 2008, when they flew out for a relaxing vacation at the swanky St. Regis hotel in southern California. And boy, did they need it: Just six days earlier, AIG had received an $85 billion government bailout. Apparently they converted it into traveler’s checks.

To their credit, the AIG execs made the most of their trip, spending a whopping $440,000. The tab included $10,000 in bar bills, $1,400 in salon expenses and $23,000 at the spa, where they racked up thousands of frequent-rubber miles.

AIG’s Most Excellent Vacation hit the media in early October and was a PR disaster. The New York Daily News may have summed it up best with their headline: “AIG big shots get $500G vacations on taxpayers’ dime.” And when it was reported that rooms at the St. Regis ran up to $1,200 a night, one Congressman pointedly remarked, “That’s more than some of my constituents pay on a mortgage payment on homes they’re now losing.”

To their defense, AIG had planned the trip before the bailout. They also tipped generously, spending another $3,000 of (taxpayer) money. And whenever possible, they used a Groupon.

But give AIG credit for being consistent. Just three months before the bailout, they fired the CEO — and gave him a $15 million parachute. And in 2014, another AIG CEO sued the government, complaining that the bailout was not generous enough. Meanwhile, several other executives are still hoping for a lucrative movie deal offer from Oliver Stone.

All of which should help PR pros remember: You never want to have bad optics. But if you do, at least make sure your room has a nice view.

Join us for our GFW PRSA half-day workshop on Wednesday, October 10, at Colonial Country Club!

Improve your pitching success rate and enhance your PR writing with Michael Smart’s PR tips. Learn specific, actionable strategies you can apply immediately to re-charge your media outreach and hone your PR skills at PRSA’s half-day workshop on Wednesday, October 10. The luncheon following the workshop will focus on reaching influencers and journalists in the new media relations landscape.

An independent communications trainer, Smart is regularly among the highest-rated speakers at the industry’s largest conferences. A former newspaper journalist, Michael has won national and regional awards for news release and feature writing.

Schedule:

  • 7:15 a.m. – Master Breakfast
  • 8 a.m. – Seminar Registration/Networking
  • 8:30 – 11:30 a.m. – SMARTer PR Workshop
  • 11:30 a.m. – noon – Luncheon Registration/Networking
  • Noon – 1 p.m. – Luncheon Program

Location:

Colonial Country Club 

Register here.