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.

Join us for our GFW PRSA Half-Day Professional Development Event on Wednesday, October 9, at Colonial Country Club!

Ready to be inspired and hear a thought-provoking message from Olympian Johnny Quinn right here in Fort Worth?

You are invited to join the Greater Fort Worth Chapter of PRSA on October 9 for our professional development program.

Spend the morning learning the elite action steps of ultra-performers – men and women who find a way to get the job done with the current resources available – with author, leadership speaker and U.S. Olympian Johnny Quinn. Johnny will translate methods for productivity, performance and perseverance that he developed in the Olympics and professional football to help you and those in your organization train to become an ultra-performer in the workplace.

Following the morning session, Johnny will clearly lay out a plan to develop a champion mindset to give you and your team the ability to adapt to change and come out ahead of the competition.

Schedule

8 a.m. – Registration/Networking

8:30 a.m.-11:30 a.m. – “Think Like an Olympian” program featuring Johnny Quinn

11:30 a.m.-12 p.m. – Luncheon registration/networking

12 p.m.-1 p.m. – Annual Membership Meeting and “Championship Mindset” luncheon presentation featuring Johnny Quinn

***** Notice of Annual Membership Meeting of Fort Worth PRSA *****

During the annual membership meeting portion of the luncheon, members will vote on the slate of the officers compiled by the Nominations Committee for the 2020 Greater Fort Worth Chapter. (Please note: The full slate will be released prior to the meeting.)

Costs

Morning Program Only – $70.00 (all registrants)

Morning Program and Luncheon – $80.00 (all registrants)

Luncheon Only – $30.00 (members), $35.00 (national members), $35.00 (non-members), $20.00 (students)

Register here.

Join us for our next GFW PRSA luncheon on Wednesday, August 14, at Colonial Country Club!

Two high-profile crises – the Jacqueline Craig incident and the uproar over SB4 – motivated the City of Fort Worth to assemble a task force and launch the Race and Culture Initiative in August 2017.  The 18-month effort required a sustained community engagement and communications strategy.

Hear from Michelle Gutt, the City of Fort Worth’s communications chief, Bob Ray Sanders, a member of the City’s Race and Culture Task Force, and Estrus Tucker, lead consultant, as they share insights on the Race and Culture Initiative from a communications perspective.

When: Wednesday, August 14, 2019, 11:30 A.M.  – 1:00 P.M.

Where: Colonial Country Club

Register here.

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.

It’s All His Fault: January PR History

Written by: Jeff Rodriguez, Historian

January 11, 1908 was a big day in public relations – as big as the Grand Canyon. In fact, it was the day the Canyon was designated as a national monument.

Strolling around today in our North Face jackets and Merrell hikers, the designation might not seem like such a big deal. But the idea of making the Grand Canyon a National Park had been considered – and despised – for years. In the 1880s, an Arizona newspaper had written an editorial expressing the popular sentiment of the locals, explaining that “whoever fathered such an idea must have been suckled by a sow and raised by an idiot.”

Enter President Teddy Roosevelt. Only Congress has the authority to create a National Park, so pig-suckling Teddy craftily found a way to designate the area as a National Monument. “Let this great wonder of nature remain as it now is,” he once said the area. “You cannot improve on it. But what you can do is keep it for … all who come after you, as the one great sight which every American should see. #bullypulpit #visitourgiftshop.”

Congress finally designated the area a National Park in 1919, and today, the park is visited each year by more than 6 million people, many of whom even get out of their car. And Roosevelt’s legacy is secure: The nonpartisan Miller Center at the University of Virginia calls Teddy “the nation’s first conservationist President,” not to mention the driving force behind the Build-A-Bear corporation.

Which just goes to show, PR pros always need to be ready to think big. And when all the naysayers are telling you to take a hike, well, go right ahead.