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.

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.

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

As a relatively new frontier, digital is a discipline that has generally been left to specialists. However, we’re not always lucky enough to have one of these specialists on hand when a prospect or client asks questions or indicates an interest in exploring this realm. As digital tactics and strategies become more integrated, if not inseparable, from PR and communications, the ability to talk digital is more important than ever. In this presentation, Jim Lin (Partner/SVP, Ketchum Digital) will share relevant points and best practices on digital tactics that brands and organizations are asking about today. With this knowledge, you will become dangerous enough to get your client or prospect to the next meeting, when you can bring a specialist into the room to take it the rest of the way.

When: Wednesday, November 14, 2018, 11:30 AM  – 1:00 PM

Where: Colonial Country Club 

Register here.

Wanna Get Away? October PR History

When the going gets tough, the tough get going – on a taxpayer-subsidized vacation. And that’s exactly what the executives at insurance giant AIG did in September 2008, when they flew out for a relaxing vacation at the swanky St. Regis hotel in southern California. And boy, did they need it: Just six days earlier, AIG had received an $85 billion government bailout. Apparently they converted it into traveler’s checks.

To their credit, the AIG execs made the most of their trip, spending a whopping $440,000. The tab included $10,000 in bar bills, $1,400 in salon expenses and $23,000 at the spa, where they racked up thousands of frequent-rubber miles.

AIG’s Most Excellent Vacation hit the media in early October and was a PR disaster. The New York Daily News may have summed it up best with their headline: “AIG big shots get $500G vacations on taxpayers’ dime.” And when it was reported that rooms at the St. Regis ran up to $1,200 a night, one Congressman pointedly remarked, “That’s more than some of my constituents pay on a mortgage payment on homes they’re now losing.”

To their defense, AIG had planned the trip before the bailout. They also tipped generously, spending another $3,000 of (taxpayer) money. And whenever possible, they used a Groupon.

But give AIG credit for being consistent. Just three months before the bailout, they fired the CEO — and gave him a $15 million parachute. And in 2014, another AIG CEO sued the government, complaining that the bailout was not generous enough. Meanwhile, several other executives are still hoping for a lucrative movie deal offer from Oliver Stone.

All of which should help PR pros remember: You never want to have bad optics. But if you do, at least make sure your room has a nice view.

Join us for our GFW PRSA half-day workshop on Wednesday, October 10, at Colonial Country Club!

Improve your pitching success rate and enhance your PR writing with Michael Smart’s PR tips. Learn specific, actionable strategies you can apply immediately to re-charge your media outreach and hone your PR skills at PRSA’s half-day workshop on Wednesday, October 10. The luncheon following the workshop will focus on reaching influencers and journalists in the new media relations landscape.

An independent communications trainer, Smart is regularly among the highest-rated speakers at the industry’s largest conferences. A former newspaper journalist, Michael has won national and regional awards for news release and feature writing.

Schedule:

  • 7:15 a.m. – Master Breakfast
  • 8 a.m. – Seminar Registration/Networking
  • 8:30 – 11:30 a.m. – SMARTer PR Workshop
  • 11:30 a.m. – noon – Luncheon Registration/Networking
  • Noon – 1 p.m. – Luncheon Program

Location:

Colonial Country Club 

Register here.