Last Month In PR || March 2021 NewsWorthy

A light-hearted and incomplete roundup of PR hits and misses from recent weeks. Our only agenda is to remind everyone how hard it is to do PR well—and how easy it is to get it wrong. Written by Jeff Rodriguez. 

CLEANUP IN THE PRODUCE SECTION: After a Trader Joe’s worker wrote to the corporate office asking for more COVID protections for employees, the company fired him. But after he posted the termination letter on his social media and drew widespread support, the company rehired him. Side note: One media outlet interviewed an independent scientist, who said the employee’s safety requests were appropriate.

AVAILABLE FOR IMMEDIATE HIRE: After White House press secretary TJ Ducklo learned a reporter was working on an unflattering story about him, he said he would “destroy” her. Ducklo resigned after his actions made headlines.

LINCOLN, LOGGED OUT: The San Francisco school district announced it will rename Lincoln High School because Old Abe did not sufficiently demonstrate that “Black lives mattered,” or defend Native Americans. Schools named after Thomas Jefferson and Paul Revere also will be renamed. A district representative said that “only good can come” from eliminating the names.

COSINE OF THE TIMES: The Oregon Dept. of Education is drawing flack for encouraging teachers to take a training on dismantling racism in mathematics. The toolkit explains, “The concept of mathematics being purely objective is unequivocally false, and teaching it even much less so.”

NON-BINDING AGREEMENT: Toymaker Hasbro has announced that Mr. Potato Head is becoming nonbinary. Henceforth, the toy will be known just as “Potato Head.” The company said the new name will be less “limiting” for gender identity and family structure. A side note: Actual potatoes possess both male and female flowers and are self-pollinating.

REALITY CHECK NO. 1: The Pittsburgh Penguins hockey team acknowledged having photoshopped masks onto the faces of fans.

REALITY CHECK NO. 2: A special effects editor created an amusing and stunningly believable “deepfake” video of Tom Cruise.

REALITY CHECK NO. 3: A Pennsylvania high school cheerleader’s mother is accused of creating some very unamusing deepfake photos and videos of other cheerleaders acting inappropriately, hoping to get the girls kicked off the team.

TWITS: Various tweets that were later deleted (or should have been):

  • The Republic National Committee tweeted, “Keeping schools closed has DEVESTATING effects” on children.
  • In the midst of the Texas ice storm, Sen. Ted Cruz was reminded that when California was suffering through rolling blackouts, he had tweeted that “California is now unable to perform even basic functions of civilization, like having reliable electricity.”
  • On International Women’s Day, Burger King’s U.K. division announced a cooking scholarship for female employees by tweeting, “Women belong in the kitchen.” Follow-up tweets explained, “If they want to, of course. Yet only 20% of chefs are women. We’re on a mission to change the gender ratio.”

But the lag between the tweets was enough time for it to draw a whopper of criticism. Burger King later tweeted an apology, then later deleted the original tweet due to numerous inappropriate comments.

TASTIER: In the U.S., Burger King announced the scholarship program with a full-page ad in the New York Times. Although they used the same headline, the explanatory text was immediately evident, stating, “If there’s a professional kitchen, women belong there.”

BAD INFLUENCE? In advance of the murder trial of George Floyd, the Minneapolis City Council approved funding to hire six individuals to serve as social media influencers. Widespread criticism prompted the Council to scrap the plan.

MEMORABLE MOMENTS: Meghan, Harry went on Oprah to plead their case, Ted Cruz went to Mexico to warm up and ERCOT and the PUC went AWOL. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo acknowledged having intentionally and drastically under-reported the number of COVID deaths in nursing homes, but now is dealing with multiple allegations of sexual harassment. And three words we’ll never forget: Zoom kitten filter.

PET CEMETERY: Speaking of kittens, the New Hampshire House of Representatives announced it will no longer allow legislators’ pets to appear onscreen during Zoom meetings.

TAKEN OUT OF CONTEXT (A recurring feature, unfortunately): In the midst of the winter storm, the mayor of Colorado City, Texas, posted these comments in Facebook: “The City and County, along with power providers or any other service owes you NOTHING! I’m sick and tired of people looking for a damn handout!! … Only the strong will survive, the weak will parish. … Bottom line-DON’T BE A PART OF PROBLEM, BE A PART OF THE SOLUTION!”

The mayor resigned, and in a later post, explained, “Things I said were taken out of context … if I had it to do over again I would have just kept my words to myself and if I did say them I would have used better wording.”

AND SOME HITS… Actor Jonah Hill (who is not exactly a Dwayne Johnson look-alike) was photographed by paparazzi on the beach with his shirt off and mocked for being chubby. Hill responded on Instagram by saying, “I’m 37 and finally love and accept myself. This isn’t a ‘good for me’ post. And it’s definitelynot a ‘feel bad for me post.’ It’s for the kids who don’t take their shirt off at the pool. Have fun. You’re wonderful and awesome and perfect. All my love.”

An Indianapolis middle school student refused to remove his hat because he was embarrassed by his haircut. Instead of disciplining the student, the principal offered to cut his hair for him. Another staff member posted a photo of the principal trimming away According to one local TV station, the post has been shared more than 26,000 times.

WORDSMITH: “PR is a mix of journalism, psychology, and lawyering – it’s an ever-changing and always interesting landscape.” – PR exec Ronn Torossian

Shoring Up the Base

Another photo-op idea that was all washed up

Written by: Jeff Rodriguez, Historian

They say a picture is worth—oh, never mind, you know that bit. This month’s column is not about the value of a great picture, but about the cost of a bad one.

That’s what happened on January 9, 1971, when President Nixon went for a walk on the beach near his home in San Clemente, CA.

Whether you were a fan of Nixon or not, most people agree he had a reputation for being somewhat stiff. With the 1972 election coming up, his aides thought it was a good idea to try and build up his image as a man of the people.

So they came up with a plan to have the President photographed while walking along the beach. It seemed like a good idea; after all, everyone enjoys spending some time on the beach (except for whales).

There was only one problem: Nixon took his stroll wearing his official Presidential windbreaker, slacks and wingtips. So he looks completely out of place, more like someone who is walking for help after his car broke down. This was not the way to be seen as a man of the people—unless perhaps the people are in North Korea.

To his defense, Nixon had a very good excuse: He always preferred to dress that way. As he once told a reporter, “I’m always wearing a coat and tie. Even when I’m alone. … That’s the way it is.”

And he was right: In fact, you can find many other shots of Nixon “relaxing” in non-relaxing clothes. There are photos of him at picnics, riding on a small boat, playing with his dog, hosing down the roof of his house, even lounging by his pool. In each shot, he is dressed like he is on his way to a conference, and in most of the photos, he looks like he’s the keynote speaker.

Nixon once said he thought it was more important for a politician to be respected than loved. As it worked out, he ended up with neither, but this PR move clearly did not serve him well.

A sidebar: The aides may have gotten their inspiration from Nixon’s old rival, President Kennedy, who also was photographed walking on the beach; what’s more, he was wearing a sport coat.

But JFK, ever the style maven, was shrewd enough to also wear khakis and sneakers, and the photo could have made the cover of GQ. Even more impressive, JFK also was once photographed on the beach with no shirt on. That shot alone had to be worth a few thousand votes.

And so another well-intentioned photo-op when awry. But this gaffe was no fault of Nixon’s; someone, anyone, on his team should have spoken up. It was similar to Michael Dukakis’ infamous tank ride, a topic we previously covered, as may be recalled by both of our regular readers.

As PR pros, we are assigned to always be on the lookout for ways to better “position” our clients. But positioning is a craft, not a science, and requires both skill and insight. So before we try to burnish our client’s credentials, it’s probably wise to make sure we’re using the right polish.

In Need of a Cover-Up

In attempting to hide a sex scandal, a Congressman nearly lost his shirt

Written by: Jeff Rodriguez, Historian

It’s not always easy to recognize quality public relations work. But it’s usually pretty easy to identify a bad PR move.

Such was the case on December 10, 1974, when Congressman Wilbur Mills resigned from his position as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. There’s a lot of power in that position, and Mills, an Arkansas Democrat, had held it for a long time, since 1958.

It was a wise move, but prompted by a series of bad moves. A couple of months earlier, at around 2 a.m. on October 7, a U.S. Park police officer had pulled over the 65-year-old Congressman.

This was a problem because, one, Mills had been driving without his headlights on; two, he was visibly intoxicated; and three, none of the people in his car was his wife.

Instead, one of his passengers was a lady named Annabelle Battistella. She was a stripper whose stage name was Fanne Fox. She also was 38 years old, meaning that Mills had been serving in Congress longer than she had been alive.

Oh, yes: Mills was bleeding from his nose, and Battistella had bruises on her face. And when the officer had approached them, Battistella tried to escape by leaving the car and jumping into the nearby Tidal Basin; perhaps she was hoping to swim outside of U.S. jurisdiction.

How Wills handled the situation is an interesting lesson in crisis management—or perhaps, non-management. Rather than comment directly, he assigned the job to an associate named Oscar Goss, who denied that Mills had been involved. But then the cops publicly confirmed that Mills was their man, and further confirmed that he had been intoxicated and bleeding at the time.

In response, Mills had Goss issue the time-honored statement of “No comment.” But the media queries and gossip were not about to stop. I mean, it was a drunk Congressman and a stripper; at the National Enquirer, they probably suspended all vacation requests.

So three days later, Mills issued another statement, confirming the allegations. But he didn’t quite come clean; as reported in the Washington Post:

“In a statement issued by his Capitol Hill office, Mills said his face was cut from his eyeglasses, which broke as he tried to stop an ill woman neighbor, Mrs. Eduardo Battistella, from leaving the vehicle.”

The statement explained that he had been at a party, and that he had left his wife at home at because she had a broken foot. The Post added, “Mills’ statement said nothing about drinking, and left unclear many other things about the incident and the other occupants of the car.”

Then Mills went into reverse-damage control, which is to say, he made the situation worse. He said Goss’ original denials occurred because he had misunderstood Mills.

When Goss had told him about the media coverage, he explained, “because of the manner in which it was phrased, I told him that it was an inaccurate report. He (Goss) mistook this to mean that I was not involved, resulting in the previous statement issued in my name.”

To buttress the strategy, Goss released his own statement, claiming it was “obvious” that he had misunderstood Mills, and adding that he deeply regretted “any embarrassment that it may have caused him and his family, and any inconvenience it has caused others.”

You would think that a scandal of this proportion, compounded by a ham-handed PR response, would end a politician’s career. You would be wrong. The next month, Mills was easily re-elected; exact numbers were not available, but some claimed his percentage of the vote was 36-26-36.

But Mills had one more faux pas up his sleeve. Just a couple of weeks after the election, he was reported to have gone to a club where Battistella was performing and jumped up on the stage. Remarkably, Fanne’s husband was with him, and he jumped on stage, too. Perhaps there was a special going that night, and everyone was getting half off (including Fanne).

Behind the mischief was a serious problem. After the stage incident, Mills resigned his chairmanship and checked himself into a rehab facility. And in 1976, he declined to seek re-election.

Mills ultimately redeemed himself, beating his addiction. He spent his remaining years helping raise funds for alcohol recovery services, and a treatment center in Arkansas was built in his honor. It’s also worth noting he was a driving force behind several important pieces of legislation, and he stayed married to his wife.

Sex dramas are nothing new to PR. But at the time, Mills’ scandal was pretty, well, scandalous. And it serves as another reminder of the important role we play. If you don’t have a good PR team helping you map your course, it’s all too easy to take a wrong turn—and find yourself driving in the dark.

Braking Bad

In 1966, a carmaker’s dubious PR strategy crashed and burned spectacularly

Written by: Jeff Rodriguez, Historian

When companies are confronted with bad publicity, they must decide how to respond; one option they might avoid is to make the situation worse. But that’s what happened on Nov. 30, 1965, when the book, “Unsafe at Any Speed: The Designed-In Dangers of the American Automobile” was released.

The author was Ralph Nader, a 31-year-old lawyer. He had been interested in auto safety for several years (even if hardly anyone else was) and the book was a culmination of his research. And it did not pull any punches; the opening sentence reads, “For over half a century the automobile has brought death, injury and the most inestimable sorrow and deprivation to millions of people.”

While Nader was critical of the industry as a whole, he took particular aim at one car, the Chevrolet Corvair. Nader maintained that the car’s faulty design put drivers at a greater risk of losing control of the vehicle and rolling it.

The day the book was published, the New York Times ran a modest article about it; the next day, they ran an article where auto industry execs refuted the allegations. But beyond that, the book got little, shall we say, traction. Nader’s work was in danger of being relegated to the junkyard of abandoned car books.

But General Motors, the parent company of Chevy, had an idea. Perhaps concerned about the potential consequences of Nader’s book, they launched a campaign to discredit him; I don’t recall this course being offered in my college’s PR curriculum, but we were not in one of the Power Conferences.

GM hired a team of private investigators to poke into Nader’s personal life. They allegedly followed him, made harassing phone calls, tapped his phone and, under false pretenses, questioned his friends. As the lead detective wrote (yes, wrote), the goal was to examine “his politics, his marital status, his friends, his women, boys, etc., drinking, dope, jobs, in fact all facets of his life.” And for good measure, they had a couple of women try to seduce him. (They failed).

In February 1966, the Washington Post ran a story reporting Nader’s allegations. GM’s next PR step was equally curious; in March, they admitted they had indeed investigated Nader, but only as a “routine” matter—because you know, we’ve all been asked common background questions about our interest in boys.

Later in March came the real PR fiasco, when James Roche, GM’s CEO, appeared before a Senate committee. In that hearing, he denied some of the worst allegations. But he also formally apologized to Nader. And when asked to address GM’s original explanation of a “routine” investigation, Roche said it must have been caused by a miscommunication. Remember, when all else fails, blame the PR team.

The hearing was front-page news; it’s not every day that a corporate CEO publicly apologizes. And now Nader’s book was in the news, too: by June, it was on the best-seller list. And in September, President Johnson signed the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act, which required new safety standards, and created an agency to enforce them.

Nader would later receive $425,000 in compensation from GM; he went on to appear on the cover of Time, Newsweek and Esquire, with the latter publication suggesting he could be President, an idea which, at the time, probably appealed to Al Gore. Today, Nader is recognized as a leading consumer advocate, and safety features have become a prime selling point for virtually every car manufacturer except France’s Renault, whose slogan is reported to be, “It runs, okay?”

And we are left to ponder GM’s strategy: how else might they have responded? Is it ever okay to run a campaign to discredit a critic? And who is to blame for creating that hideous Pontiac Aztec?

These are complex questions, and we may not all agree on the answers. But we do know this much: driving a PR campaign is a lot like driving a car. Before you get on the road, it’s usually a good idea to first know where you want to end up.

Minority Report

When President Kennedy found himself in a deep hole, he started digging.

Written by: Jeff Rodriguez, Historian

This month, we take a break from the stress and controversy of the pandemic to talk about something lighter, like um, racial inequality. While it has been a topic of much discussion in recent weeks, it was also a bit of an issue in 1963.

That year, civil rights activists were holding sit-ins and marches, and MLK Jr. was arrested, prompting him to write his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” In May, protestors were met with fire hoses and police dogs, and the hotel where King had been staying was bombed. And that’s just some of the stuff we know about.

It was a time of great turmoil, as well one that called for decisive leadership, and President Kennedy was eager to provide it – if only he could decide how. To his defense, it was a little complicated.

Blacks, who had overwhelmingly voted for Kennedy in 1960, were frustrated with his seemingly timid efforts to further civil rights. At the same time, those timid efforts were costing him support among whites in the North, who were beginning to wonder if the President had forgotten about their concerns. And you can imagine how many whites in the south felt.

To top it off, Kennedy was also keenly worried about how the civil rights struggle reflected on the U.S. globally, especially in contrast to the Soviet state. It’s not easy to sell democracy abroad when the cops are clubbing citizens back home. As Kennedy told one Senator, “Events are making our problems.”

And looming on the horizon was the 1964 election. As one historian summarized, Kennedy’s task was to “somehow generate a big turnout from white and black liberals outside the South, while not alienating too many white Democrats inside the South. Along the way, he had to avoid appearing to give in to southern segregationists, or seeming to take orders from civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King Jr.”

All righty then. But what to do? Vice President Johnson had previously suggested the President highlight the military service of blacks by appearing on television with an interracial honor guard. Legislation was another option, but as Kennedy had once privately lamented, “What law can you pass to do anything about [local] police power?”

But all the vacillating came to an end on June 11. That day, Alabama Governor George Wallace had briefly prevented two black students from integrating the university. The gesture was purely symbolic, but – at least in the eyes of the locals – a brilliant PR move. After “winning” that showdown, Kennedy decided it was time for the government to make a major statement on civil rights. That night.

The nationally televised speech Kennedy gave that evening was written in about two hours, and was still being worked on minutes before air time. It also was too short, prompting Kennedy to make some of his remarks extemporaneously. Even with his additional comments, the speech lasted less than 14 minutes.

But it worked. “JFK Asks Nation to End Race Curbs; Two Negroes Enrolled at Alabama U,’ declared the Washington Post. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch called the speech “one of the major achievements of the civil rights struggle,” and Newsweek called it “the politics of courage.”

Of course, others were less overwhelmed. The Wall Street Journal’s understated headline read, “Kennedy Outlines Civil Rights Bill, Asks Public Help,” and ran the article inside. And Time magazine quipped that Kennedy had asked, “not what a Kennedy Administration could do for the Negroes, but what the Negroes could do for John F. Kennedy on Election Day.”

And some were not impressed at all. Georgia Sen. Richard Russell Jr., for example, complained that a civil rights bill would transform the U.S. into a “socialistic or communist state.” Russell would later go on to filibuster the civil rights legislation and help write “The Southern Manifesto.” As punishment for these outrageous acts, Congress named one of the DC Senate buildings in his honor.

But at least Kennedy’s remarks resonated with the black community. NAACP leader Roy Wilkins recalled, “For the first time in years, real change seemed to be at hand.” And that King guy said, “That white man not only stepped up to the plate, he hit it over the fence!”

In fact, Kennedy’s speech prompted the activists to revise their own tactics. Previously they had planned to march on Washington to pressure Kennedy; now they decided to put pressure on Congress.

Kennedy submitted his civil rights bill to Congress the next week. Ahead lay a difficult road: There would be much more violence, and Kennedy himself would be assassinated in November. LBJ was able to usher the bill through the following July, but the political cost was steep: All the Southerners who voted Democratic that year later met up to celebrate. At a Krispy Kreme.

While Kennedy did not live to see the passing of his legislation, his speech is widely considered to be a brilliant strategy. You can read a transcript here.

PR pros might disagree on racial issues, but there is one thing we should all be able to agree on: The right message, delivered at the right time, by the right person, and in the right way, can truly make a profound impact.

“Recognizing the call of history,” one historian wrote, “Kennedy made an abrupt turn and accepted the mantle of moral leadership King had urged upon him.” Another historian simply describes June 10 and 11, 1963, as “the 48 Hours that changed history.” But I’ll let JFK have the last word:

“The heart of the question is whether all Americans are to be afforded equal rights and equal opportunities. … One hundred years of delay have passed since President Lincoln freed the slaves, yet their heirs, their grandsons, are not fully free. … And this Nation, for all its hopes and all its boasts, will not be fully free until all its citizens are free. … Now the time has come for this nation to fulfill its promise.”