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.

Whatever Floats Your Boat

The PR campaign that help sink a war hero’s presidential ambitions

Written by: Jeff Rodriguez, Historian

People often discuss politics using military terms. We refer to “campaigns” and “war chests,” or lament, “But we can’t count on the French.”

Coincidentally, one of the more memorable recent political PR campaigns involved military service—particularly, that of John Kerry, the Democratic presidential candidate in 2004. While serving in Vietnam, Kerry had earned three Purple Heart medals, as well as the Bronze and Silver medals.

Kerry’s military record appeared to be an impregnable front line. But a group called the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth (SBVT) thought otherwise, and set out to prove it. In a press conference, they announced that their mission was to “accurately portray” Kerry’s service in Vietnam, and they presented a statement that was signed by a regiment of veterans. Or maybe it was a battalion—in any case, it was a lot.

In August 2004, they launched, if you will, an all-out assault on Kerry’s record. Two members of the group published a book about Kerry titled, “Unfit for Command.” They also created a website and a series of well-crafted commercials featuring comments from several concerned vets, who questioned Kerry’s honesty, character, courage, and woefully unassertive eyebrows.

Kerry’s campaign responded, noting that two of the vets appearing in the commercials had previously supported him, and one of the retired officers attacking him had previously written commendations.

Other questions popped up. Some of the interviewees said their comments had been edited in a misleading fashion, the military doctor who accused Kerry of lying about his wounds had no record of having ever treated him, and one “witness” later admitted he had no firsthand knowledge of the events.

Republican Sen. John McCain, himself a Vietnam vet, condemned the ads, saying they were “dishonest and dishonorable.” And as I’m sure you all remember, the group’s initial statement was signed by some suspicious Navy vets, including Popeye, Gilligan and Capt. Jack Sparrow.

The strong resistance did not deter the SBVT troops, who ran four commercials and did numerous interviews. At the end of the month, they called on Kerry to release all his military and medical records, and released an open letter stating, “Tell the Truth and We’ll Stop the Ads.” To which the Kerry campaign reportedly responded, “You can’t make me, you can’t make me.”

In a matter of weeks, the SWBT campaign had changed the arc of the contest. But did it also tip the election? Many of George W. Bush’s supporters thought so; one conservative columnist wrote that the SWBT’s efforts “gave Bush a chance,” and another wrote, “There is not a doubt in my mind this was the difference in the race.” Kerry himself later wrote, “If I were a citizen watching that ad … I wouldn’t vote for me.” (Nor would Ralph Nader.)

For a while, “swift boating” became a noun referring to the act of making exaggerated or unsubstantiated allegations to damage someone’s credibility. Today of course, we just call it Tweeting.

PR pros may not agree on whether the SWBT campaign is something to be celebrated or shunned. But there’s little doubt it’s a clear example of the critical role PR can have in a presidential election.

And look, here comes one now.

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.

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.”