Something Clicked

Over the years, seat belt PR campaigns have helped save thousands of lives–despite our objections.

Written by: Jeff Rodriguez, Historian

This month’s column has some loose ends. For one, our research team has had a hard time confirming some specific dates. And two, our topic is seat belts–loose ones, to be exact.

Up until recently, Americans had a very uneasy relationship with seat belts. In the U.S., belts were introduced 1949; unfortunately traffic fatalities were already a concern. In 1959, one government official called it “the epidemic on the highways.”

But the innovation had more than a few skeptics. As one journalist reported, “Among the arguments put forth against seat belts was that they could cause internal injuries; that they prevented easy escapes from cars submerged in water; and that devices frequently failed.” The reporter added that, although researchers refuted these beliefs, “opposition remained fierce.”

Seat belts also were bad for business. In 1956, Ford’s advertising focused on their seat belts and other new safety features, while Chevy’s ads focused on power.  Chevy sales squashed the Blue Oval that year, prompting Henry Ford II to note that while their company was selling safety, “Chevrolet is selling cars.”

By 1963, 23 states had laws requiring carmakers to put seatbelts in the driver’s seat, and in 1968, federal legislation was passed. The catch is, while the government was requiring car makers to install the seat belts, there was no law requiring people to actually wear them.

During the decade, the National Safety Council tried to nudge Americans along with their “Buckle Up for Safety” PR campaign; the jingles were quite cute and still worth listening to.

The real struggle began in December 1984, when New York became the first state to require the use of seat belts. Notably, Texas was not far behind, passing its law in September 1985–before Oklahoma, Louisiana and Arkansas.  (To be fair, Arkansas did not really have a need for the law at that time, as most of the state’s vehicles were on cinder blocks.)

Opposition remained fierce. A radio personality gathered 45,000 signatures calling for a referendum, and some people cut the belts out. A national columnist compared a seat belt law to being fined for leaving the skin on your chicken, while an editorial writer railed, “In this country, saving freedom is more important than trying to regulate lives through legislation.” And no, I did not steal that line from my Twitter feed.

A regional survey confirmed the resistance, with many drivers finding seat belts to be “ineffective, inconvenient, and uncomfortable.” (Notably, the report also found that belt opposition was more likely “among persons who reported that they drove after marijuana use, or heavy drinking, or both.”)

Enter Vince and Larry, the crash test dummies. This PR campaign was introduced some time in 1985 (another loose end). The duo wrapped their serious message in clever humor and the tagline, “You could learn a lot from a dummy.” The campaign ran until 1999, winning numerous awards. More important, Vince and Larry are credited with dramatically increasing seat belt usage. In 2010, the costumes were (carefully) moved to the Smithsonian.

Accelerate to May 2002, when “Click It or Ticket” went nationwide. This PR campaign also made an impact: By 2008, seat belt usage had increased to 83 percent.

Today, the only state without a seat belt law is New Hampshire, whose state motto, fittingly, is “Live Free or Die.” The National Highway Something Something reports that from 2013-17, seat belts saved approximately 69,000 lives; their current slogan is, “Wear your belt every time—no matter how uncomfortable it feels or how far you’re going.” (Incidentally, if you want to see just how wimpy American PR campaigns really are, search for New Zealand seatbelt safety campaign.)

In June, the government concluded a month-long traffic safety radio campaign that ran in 13 states, including Texas. Chances are, you didn’t hear the ads—or perhaps you just didn’t notice them. After all, seat belts now are just so routine.

And what was once considered a radical affront to our liberty has become a norm most people not only tolerate but desire. But it has been a long road. As one journalist noted, seat belt acceptance required “public service campaigns, legal enforcement, and even regular reminders from our cars themselves.”

So take it from Vince and Larry: Skilled and dedicated PR professionals have repeatedly shown they can influence our thinking and save lives—if we will let them.

Media Landscape Amid COVID-19, Courtesy Of Kim Brown, APR

“As a former broadcast news producer, I never thought I’d see the day when interviews were primarily conducted virtually. I remember standing in the production booth at CBS 11, patching in Skype interviews after the fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas. The quality was poor, but it was breaking news. The kind where quality doesn’t really matter. We were on the air and needed the latest information. This was the exception to our ‘the viewers care about quality, so avoid Skype interviews’ rule.

Seven years later, here we are, in the middle of breaking news once again. This time, it’s a global pandemic and nearly everyone has been sent home. Who could have imagined a time when Chris Cuomo would be hosting his primetime show on CNN from his basement? It’s the same for local media too. Anchors, reporters, even producers and editors are all working from home. The thought of this makes my former producer brain spin. And I want to know, will their shift to online news reporting last? In certain aspects, I hope it does.

As a media relations specialist at Cook Children’s Medical Center, I see the doors of possibility opening amid the current news landscape. Things move more quickly now. Instead of juggling multiple schedules, arranging locations for filming, coordinating with the expert, department leaders, parking and security to ensure everyone is in the loop, now interviews can be done with the click of a Zoom link. It literally takes an hours-long process down to minutes. And it’s not just saving everyone time, it’s opening up opportunities for interviews that may have never occurred.

One example of how this new process has worked to our advantage is our recent stories about child abuse. About a week after stay-at-home orders went into effect in North Texas, Cook Children’s began seeing an uptick in cases of severe physical abuse. Seven children were admitted to the hospital in one week and two of those children died. We knew we had to do something, so we sounded the alarm and started speaking out. This strategy isn’t new to us, but what is different is the number of interviews we were able to line up for Cook Children’s child abuse pediatrician, Jamye Coffman, M.D. Normally, we would be limited in how many shoots we could schedule because of the valuable time it takes up. (And if anyone’s time is important, it’s Dr. Coffman’s.) But thanks to Zoom and similar platforms, we were lining up interviews back to back. Since mid-March, Dr. Coffman has been featured in nearly two dozen unique articles, from local outlets to the New York Times, regarding child abuse and the COVID-19 stay-at-home orders. I have to believe this level of coverage would not have been possible without the media’s newfound comfort with virtual interviews. Yes, some of these stories were done with old-fashion phoners, but many weren’t. And if not for all of these interviews, I’m not sure this issue would be receiving the attention it deserves. After the initial stories came out, other children’s hospitals started reporting similar trends nationwide. Now, child abuse amid quarantine is something people across the country are talking about. I think virtual interviews are partly to thank.” Kim Brown, 

Senior Media Relations and Communications Specialist at Cook Children’s

May Program Presentation: How Public Relations Practitioners Can Help Organizations Adapt to COVID-19

Click here for our latest virtual program from this month’s presenter – Julie O’Neil: PRSA COVID 19 Presentation O’Neil.

 

 

Now and Then: Are we living through an unprecedented time … again?

Written by: Jeff Rodriguez, Historian

These are unprecedented times, which call for extraordinary actions – including another pandemic-themed column. This month, we present some random notes on our nation’s history with economic and health crises. Depending upon your perspective, this will either make you feel much better about our current situation or much worse. Either way, it might add a little historical perspective for PR pros as we advise their clients.

– From 1636 to 1698, Boston endured six epidemics of smallpox. The one in 1721 was so bad that most people fled the city.

– The country’s first significant financial crisis began in 1785. Four more followed quickly, and 16 of the next 25 years would be marked by economic turmoil.

– In 1835, the Bank of Maryland collapsed. Citizens, convinced they had been scammed, attacked the houses of the bankers. The state militia was called out, killing some 20 people and wounding many more.

– In 1837, the Great Plains suffered through a smallpox epidemic, one of several that contributed to the decimation of the Native Americans. That same year, the Panic of 1837 occurred.

– The Panic of 1837 was horribly misnamed. In fact, the recession lasted for about seven years, during which time more than a third of the banks failed, millions of people were unemployed, and civil unrest was widespread. The difficult time is more accurately summed up by the historian’s book titled, “America’s first Great Depression: Economic Crisis and Political and Disorder after the Panic of 1837.”

– 1837 also saw the Flour Riot, and no, it was not any fun.

– There have been multiple cholera epidemics around the world and in the U.S. Groups held responsible for starting the various outbreaks include Jews, gypsies, Indians, Filipinos, the Irish and the poor. Some American scientists blamed African Americans for causing cholera, while Tunisians blamed Europeans. Whoever was to blame, President Polk is believed to have died from it, along with millions of others.

– The Panic of 1873 lasted about four years, with the New York Stock Exchange closing for 10 days.

– Yet another panic occurred in 1893, again lasting about four years. In some states, the unemployment rate topped 25 percent, and the supply of gold reserves fell so low that J.P. Morgan had to give the government a bailout.

– The big picture: If you were born in1835 and lived to be 65, you would have lived through 16 recessions.

– Although smallpox has largely been eliminated in the U.S., there have been numerous epidemics. The last major domestic event occurred in Boston between 1901-1903, and had an estimated a 17 percent fatality rate.

– In 1920, Edith Wharton published what many consider to be her masterpiece, a book about the flu pandemic of 1918. It was titled, “The Age of Innocence.”

– In 1929, the Great Depression – ah, never mind.

– From 1949 to 1960, there were four recessions.  Although the 1960 one was brief, Nixon, who was vice president at the time, believed it cost him the election, because voters blamed their woes on the Republicans.

– There were two recessions between 1980 and ’82. Unemployment reached almost 11 percent, and for six quarters, the GDP was negative.

– In 2013, CBS ran a program on the JFK assassination; it was titled, “When America Lost its Innocence.” The Orange County Register also called the event  “the weekend America lost its innocence.” The ‘60s, they added, were “a time Americans came to question almost everything we had once taken for granted.”

– After the September 11 attacks, a senior Time magazine essayist, (among others), declared the event marked “the end of the age of irony.” Before the attacks, he explained, “the good folks in charge of America’s intellectual life have insisted that nothing was to be believed in or taken seriously.”

– Not to be outdone by her elders, a 25-year-old journalist wrote of the attacks, “Maybe a coddled generation that bathed itself in sarcasm will get serious. Maybe we’ll stop acting so jaded.”

– In 2012, a movie titled, “The Age of Deceit” was released.

– Earlier this month, the Fort Worth Business Press’  Robert Francis wrote an insightful column noting the sudden surge in the use of the words “unprecedented” and “uncertain.” Just for fun, I typed “unpr,” and sure enough, Google’s third search response was “unprecedented times.”

– In March, author and speaker Simon Sinek released a video out titled, “These Are Not Unprecedented Times.” It’s has more than more than 270,000 views – and just wait until we’re able to start holding conferences again.

Unprecedented or not, these are definitely difficult times for many. Please be kind to one another.

COVID-19 Update

#FWPRSA: Due to the latest COVID-19 developments, the following changes have been made to the chapter’s upcoming events:

• March 19: GFW PRSA Health Care Special Interest Group meeting – postponed

• March 26: PR After Dark Happy Hour – postponed

• April 1: PRSA April luncheon – will be turned into a virtual event. Watch for details.

• May 6: PRSA May Luncheon – will be turned into a virtual event. Watch for details.

We are thinking of you & your teams and feel that keeping this group of PR professionals in contact will be beneficial as we all navigate this unprecedented time.