A Monumental Crisis

Written by: Jeff Rodriguez, Historian

It’s funny how the best intentions can sometimes lead to the worst PR situations. Actually, it’s not funny at all. But that’s what happened prior to November 13, 1982, the day of the dedication ceremony for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

Certainly the individuals  leading the effort, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund committee, had tried to do the right thing. They had gathered the support of influential people like H. Ross Perot. They held an open competition, accepting more than 1,400 design proposals. They also gathered eight distinguished artists and designers to judge the designs, concealing the identity of the entrants.

So it was a bit of a surprise when the jury announced that the winning design had been submitted by Maya Lin, a 21-year-old undergraduate student at Yale. Her proposal was a bit of a surprise, too: A giant, black, granite V, cut into the ground.

Lin’s design was the jurors’ unanimous choice and well-received by many. As the New York Times wrote, “This design gives every indication of being a place of extreme dignity that honors the veterans who served in Vietnam with more poignancy, surely, than any ordinary monument ever could.”

But some people did not like Lin’s proposal – and among them were many were veterans. They questioned little details about the design, like why, since all of the other monuments in D.C. were white, this one was black. And they wondered why all the other monuments soared into the air, while this one sank into the ground.

Some critics thought the giant V was intended as a subtle form of the two-fingers Peace symbol; one opponent called it “a tribute to Jane Fonda.” One of the most vocal opponents was Tom Carhart, a Vietnam vet who also had entered the competition; he called Lin’s design “a black ditch of shame and sorrow.”

The controversy escalated. People on both sides received threatening phone calls. More than two dozen Republican congressmen wrote a letter to President Reagan, calling the monument “a political statement of shame and dishonor,” while columnist Pat Buchanan asserted that one of the jurors was a Communist. James Watt, Reagan’s secretary of the Interior, refused to issue a building permit, and Perot withdrew his support, describing Lin, who was of Chinese descent, as an “egg roll.”  As NPR later reported, the project “needed public relations crisis managers.” Indeed.

Eventually a compromise was reached: A bronze statue of three soldiers and a U.S. flag on a 50-foot pole would be added to the memorial. This, too, was the subject of controversy, with the unhappy vets wanting the additions placed front and center of the V, an idea that Lin and the architects association strenuously opposed. Ultimately the statue and flag were added, but were placed off to the side. Depending upon your viewpoint, this was either a good compromise or yet another insult.

The years appear to have worked in favor of Lin and her supporters. The American Institute of Architects now ranks the memorial No. 10 on its list of “America’s Favorite Architecture,” and it has become the most widely visited monument in D.C. Several traveling and fixed replicas also have been built.

The initial hostility to Lin’s design may have been an over-reaction, but the opponents did have one point PR pros may want to keep in mind: None of the people judging the proposals had served in Vietnam. We’ll close with excerpts of a thoughtful opinion piece Tom Carhart published in the New York Times:

“There were really two wars in that era: The first was a military war fought in Vietnam where 57,000 Americans died and whose veterans the Fund is authorized by Congress to ‘recognize and honor’; the second was a political war waged here at home. The jurors know nothing of the real war in Vietnam — the television portrayal was far from adequate. … The net result is that the design the jury chose as the winner was necessarily a function of their perception of the war they lived through in America.”

Indeed.

Parental Discretion Devised

Written by: Jeff Rodriguez, Historian

We all know that politics can be a dirty business. But on Sept. 19, 1985, things got really dirty – as in, completely inappropriate for the kids. And the PR pros.

That’s the day the U.S. Senate held a hearing on “porn rock.” The intention was to consider whether the content of some music may be inappropriate for children and, if so, what should be done about it. The driving force behind the hearing were four politically connected moms who had founded the PMRC – the Parents Music Resource Center. And the primary spokesperson for the group was Tipper Gore, wife of Senator Al Gore.

The PMRC wanted the record labels to put a warning sticker on albums that had explicit content and to create a rating system similar to the one used by the movie industry. They also wanted stores to conceal any albums with cover designs that were really hot. I mean, offensive.

Representing the degenerate musicians were Twisted Sister’s Dee Snider, Frank Zappa and John Denver, who attended because he mistakenly thought the topic was endangered species. What ensued was a superb public relations battle.

To make their case, the PMRC activists and several others read song lyrics and showed music videos. As the Washington Post reported, “The litany of licentiousness generated equal amounts of laughter and groans from the standing-room-only crowd.”

The activists also cited “the Filthy Fifteen:” fifteen songs they said were particularly objectionable. The list included songs by Prince, Judas Priest, AC/DC, Madonna and Black Sabbath; a longer list also named several songs by Yanni as musical abominations, but for different reasons.

But the musicians gave as good as they got. Snider admonished the group, “The full responsibility for defending my children falls on the shoulders of my wife and I, because there is no one else capable of making these judgments for us.” Zappa – rarely one for subtlety – called the PMRC’s proposal an ill-conceived piece of nonsense,” adding it was the equivalent of treating dandruff with decapitation.”

And Denver, whom the Senators probably had considered to be a ringer, said the proposals were similar to the Nazi book burnings. He further stated, “That which is denied becomes that which is most desired, and that which is hidden becomes that which is most interesting” – coincidentally, words I recall being told repeatedly throughout my college years.

Despite the musicians’ strong testimony, the record industry, which had several other legislative priorities, voluntarily agreed to add the warning stickers; that’s the “Parental Advisory” labels you’ve seen on many records (and at the entrance to each Popeye’s).

Side note: Tipper Gore was hardly a prude. She played the drums, and in her youth, she sat in with The Grateful Dead. She also performed in an all-female band called the Wildcats, and I’m sure they were really hot. I mean, offensive.

In the end, both sides could claim victory. Gore’s group got their labels and were very successful in raising awareness about explicit music lyrics. The raunchy performers, meanwhile, got some great exposure. One radio personality credited the PMRC with helping popularize heavy metal, and as Dee Snider later observed, the common response from kids was, “ ‘Now we know which records to buy!’ ”

 And we in the PR profession got another good lesson. Because even when your campaign is topping the charts, you have to be ready to deal with the misses. And the Missus.

Conscious Coupling: August PR History

Written by: Jeff Rodriguez, Historian

Doris Fleischman didn’t really want to make a name for herself; she just wanted to keep the one she already had.

Born in 1891, the talented wordsmith had honed her skills at Barnard College, where, in her spare time, she lettered in three sports and studied both psychiatry and music. After college, she worked on the women’s page of a New York newspaper.

But the paper was not big enough for her talents or her aspirations. And 100 years ago – sometime during 1919 – Fleischman accepted a job working for Edward Bernays, an incredible achievement for a woman. (In case you’ve misplaced your Public Relations Family Tree, Bernays is widely considered the father of modern public relations; the matriarch is, of course, Kim Kardashian).

In a time when women could not yet vote, Fleischman worked on many of Bernays’ biggest PR campaigns. She also wrote an in-house publication titled “Contact,” which both explained the importance of PR and helped drive the firm’s success.

But Fleischman was more than a PR pioneer; she also was a pioneer in feminism, publicly advocating for women’s equality. And she demonstrated exactly what she meant in 1922. That year, she married Bernays and became an equal owner of the firm. And when they went to the hotel that evening, she signed the registry not as Mrs. Bernays, but under her own name. Reportedly, she also hogged the TV remote control.

Three years later, Fleischman staked another claim for feminism by requesting that she keep her birth name on her passport. As she explained in a letter to the government, “since the purpose of a passport is to establish identity, I assume you will not wish me to travel under a false name.” The government granted her request, and Fleischman became the first wife ever to be issued a passport in her birth name. It was another remarkable accomplishment, especially since “Fleischman” was considerably harder for bureaucrats to spell.

Bernays, ever the PR sage, probably had a hand in encouraging his wife’s actions. But that makes Fleischman’s passion no less sincere. She was a member of the Association for Women in Communications, mentored female students and helped found a competition to develop ways to help women achieve pay equity and greater equality. She also was a member of the Lucy Stone League, which encouraged women to keep their names, and her memoir was titled, “A Wife is Many Women.” To be fair, Fleischman had staff to run her house — but she also was the one running the staff.

Fleischman died in 1980, leaving a profound legacy and remarkable insight. “We thought a name itself had power to confer a separate identity,” she once wrote in a magazine article, “(but) it is the actions of women and the attitudes of men towards them that determine a woman’s status.”

So happy work anniversary, Doris. In an era when people were still figuring out what it meant to be a PR pro and what it meant to be a feminist, you showed them how to do both.

A Sorry State of Affairs: July PR History

Written by: Jeff Rodriguez, Historian

On July 20, 2010, the U.S. Department of Agriculture apologized to Shirley Sherrod. So did the NAACP, President Obama and, for good measure, news commentator Bill O’Reilly.

The source of all these mea culpas was the previous day’s events, when Sherrod had resigned her position as the Ag Department’s State Director of Rural Development for Georgia. And the source of her resignation was a video posted by the conservative journalist Andrew Breitbart. The clip showed Sherrod, who is black, giving a speech at a recent meeting of the NAACP. The clip showed – or rather, seemed to show — her admitting that she had once discriminated against a white farmer.

Within hours, Sherrod was more reviled than aerosol cheese. Both the NAACP and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack were critical. O’Reilly called for Sherrod’s immediate resignation, saying her comments were “simply unacceptable.” And behind the scenes, the Obama Administration was quietly getting ready to post her position on Zip Recruiter.

As Sherrod was driving home from work that night, her supervisor called, asking for her resignation; she pulled over and typed it out on her Blackberry. But her email included some serious foreshadowing, stating, “I will get the whole story out.”

And indeed she did, appearing on television the next day. Because it turned out that the video had been “slightly edited,” in the same way you might say that aerosol cheese has been “slightly processed.” When the full clip was seen, it became clear that Sherrod actually was speaking against racism. As another conservative journalist, Rich Lowry, later wrote, “Her full speech is heartfelt and moving … the tale of someone overcoming hatred and rancor when she had every reason not to.” Even the white farmer’s wife spoke on Sherrod’s behalf.

And so began the apologies from all – well, most — quarters. Secretary Vilsack also offered Sherrod a new position with the department, but she declined, perhaps knowing that the job would conflict with the speaking tour she would soon be booking.

Today, it’s easy to criticize everyone for their haste. But as PR pros, it’s worth considering the factors that might have been at play. As The Atlantic later noted, the Administration was “extremely sensitive to the charge that Obama is using his presidency to advance the cause of black people.” Thus, the effort to minimize some bad publicity may have created worse publicity.

After the dust settled, Sherrod continued to be involved with organizations that assist poor and minority farmers. And of course, she wrote that book. She also sued Breitbart; that case was settled confidentially in 2015.

Ultimately, Sherrod’s story is a helpful reminder for both PR pros and our clients: Although you can get a great workout by jumping to conclusions and pointing fingers, it’s usually healthier just to exercise some discretion.

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.