Poll Position: June PR History

Written by: Jeff Rodriguez, Historian

This month’s column is dedicated to our Founding Fathers, who, from our earliest days of nationhood, had both the vision and the courage to grant women the right to vote.

Oh wait: This is supposed to be historical.

In that case, we should take a moment to remember June 4, 1919. On that day, the Senate narrowly approved the 19thAmendment, granting women suffrage. (The House had approved it earlier.) Women had taken a huge step toward equality — just 143 years after the Declaration of Independence.

Opposition to the amendment had been intense and could serve as a master class in persuasive – albeit misguided — PR tactics. Some people argued that giving women the right to vote would lead to the end of chivalry, while others maintained it would cause women to stop marrying and having children.

Then, too, women were considered too busy caring for their children and households to deal with such weighty issues. And they certainly lacked the sound reasoning skills of the great male leaders, wise men like Genghis Khan, Stalin and the U.S. Congress.

Indeed, when the Senate had taken up the bill, one member asserted that letting women vote would “place the Government under petticoat rule.” Another legislator stated that women’s suffrage would result in “disaster and ruin” for the country; this, he man-splained, was because men “could never resist the blandishments of women.”1

Often overlooked is how effective the suffragettes’ own PR efforts were —  and how much endured to achieve their goal. They previously had organized a march down Pennsylvania Avenue and protested outside the White House, both times being met with violence. As early as 1916, they had set up a publicity bureau in D.C. so they could lobby Congressmen in person. And hide their remote controls.

Notably, at least some of the media coverage was balanced. The day after the vote, the New York Times announced that, “Suffrage Wins In Senate, Now Goes To States,” with the article stating that women had prevailed “After a long and persistent fight.” There was no other media coverage that day, but only because the night before, all of the nations’ women had refused to do laundry, pack lunches and get the kids off to school, leaving their helpless husbands stuck at home.

The journey to ratification would be perilous and drag out over 14 months. But if that seems a little slow, it’s worth remembering how long women had waited just to get this far. After all, Wyoming had granted women the right to vote back in 1869. And they’re not even in the Big XII.

Today, the arguments against women’s suffrage seem both quaint and offensive. But it’s worth remembering how widespread those ideas once were, and how hard it was to overcome them. It’s also worth remembering that sometimes, a campaign to win over public sentiment is less about the facts and more about, well, the sentiment.

1 Blandishment (n.): A flattering or pleasing statement or action used to gently persuade someone to do something. Like put the toilet seat down.

 

He Just Needs Some Space: April PR History

Written by: Jeff Rodriguez, Historian

Nobody really wants to look at your travel pictures. And this was particularly true on April 12, 1961, when Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin successfully completed the first orbit of Earth. Gagarin’s flight thrilled the Communists – but terrified just about everyone else.

The U.S. was already fretting about the space race, as the Soviets had successfully launched the first satellite. Gagarin’s orbit was even more humiliating, especially since his flight took off on time.

Afterward, a Soviet scientist declared that Gagarin’s trip “shook the world.” And indeed, he wasn’t exaggerating. The flight was banner news on virtually every newspaper, with headlines like, “Soviet Man Orbits, Returns to Earth.”

Some publications had a more political angle. The Daily Worker, a pro-Communist U.S. paper, announced, “A Communist in Space,” while a paper with a slightly different perspective declared, “REDS ORBIT MAN.” The Christian Science Monitor struck a metaphysical tone, observing, “Man Leaps Free of Earth Shackles,” while Time magazine’s cover illustration of Gagarin included a Soviet hammer and sickle – in flight.

On television, ABC News intoned that “all of Russia was going wild,” and then discussed in detail how the Soviets were already planning a flight to the moon, where their female athletes could train in total secrecy.

In D.C, President Kennedy was desperate to find people who could help the U.S. catch up. “Let’s find somebody, anybody,” he said.” I don’t care if it’s the janitor over there, if he knows how.” The next month, Kennedy announced that the U.S. should set a goal to get a man to the moon before the end of the decade. In making the announcement, JFK abandoned his original campaign promise to eliminate potholes in America, a goal that continues to elude our brightest minds.

Fortunately, the U.S. marshaled its resources and responded brilliantly: In the years to come, we would complete many important space projects, including Star Trek, Apollo 13, All the Right Stuff and creating an entire planet of Ewoks.

It makes you proud to be an American. And proud to be a PR pro, as well. Because when it’s time to celebrate a client’s achievements, we know how to build ‘em, launch ’em and land ’em. And of course, the view is spectacular.

The Pajama Game: March PR History

Written by: Jeff Rodriguez, Historian

Newlyweds do all sorts of memorable things for their honeymoon. But few can top the one that occurred in March 1969, when John Lennon and Yoko Ono held their “Bed-in for Peace.”

The couple had secretly married on March 20. Knowing that the marriage announcement would attract widespread media attention, the couple decided to, in today’s parlance, re-purpose their content. So they checked in to the Presidential Suite of the Amsterdam Hilton Hotel and invited the press to visit them in their room.

The previous year, Lennon and Ono had been photographed in the nude. Now the media was being invited to film the newlyweds’ honeymoon, and they were eager to give them full coverage, so to speak. As Lennon later recalled, “they fought their way in.”

But instead of finding the couple in sexual congress, they found them in opposition to Congress. The newlyweds were wearing their PJs and snuggled in bed, calling for an end to the Vietnam War and violence around the world. With reporters crowding around them, Yoko explained, “We’re thinking that, instead of going out and fight and make war or something like that, we should just stay in bed: Everybody should just stay in bed and enjoy the spring.” Politics really does make for strange bedfellows.

From March 25-31, Lennon and Ono received the media and visitors daily, answering questions, occasionally calling out “All you need is love,” and continually adjusting their respective Sleep Number settings.

The protest did receive extensive coverage, but the media reaction was lukewarm. One paper declared, “Beatle Lennon and his charmer Yoko have now established themselves as the outstanding nutcases of the world.” And one reporter, apparently missing the irony of the moment, asked Lennon, “Is there not a more positive way of demonstrating in favor of peace than sitting in bed?” To which Lennon replied, “Stop asking us if you think it’s going to work and do something yourself.” Ol’ John probably would have been a pretty good PR consultant – too bad he missed his calling.

Sometimes forgotten is that, a couple of months later, the couple held a second bed-in, in a Montreal hotel room. It’s where they recorded, “Give Peace a Chance,” joined by several celebrities and, I believe, the Fiji Water Girl.

Lennon, with McCartney, later wrote a song about the experience, “The Ballad of John and Yoko.” It references the media three times, and concludes, “The way things are going, they’re going to crucify me.” The Beatles split up the next year, and in 1980, Lennon was shot and killed.

Of course, the bed-in did not succeed in ending the war. But it did help the Amsterdam Hilton: The room, now known as the John and Yoko Suite, is available for around $2,000 a night. And there is little doubt that, as a PR strategy, the bed-ins were both imaginative and effective. All of which should help us remember: A little careless pillow talk can destroy a great PR campaign. And sometimes, launch one.

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.