Join us for our next GFW PRSA luncheon on Wednesday, July 10, at Colonial Country Club!

The city of Fort Worth has always captured the imagination – and now more visitors are checking out our great city than ever before. Hear from Visit Fort Worth’s Executive Vice President for Marketing & Strategy, Mitch Whitten, on how the organization is sharing the welcome and helping boost our $2.6 billion visitor economy.

When: Wednesday, July 10, 2019, 11:30 A.M.  – 1:00 P.M.

Where: Colonial Country Club

Register here.

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.

 

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.