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.”

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.