Rough Landing

Written by: Jeff Rodriguez, Historian

When automakers needed a helping hand, they also brought a silver spoon.

“It’s not about the destination,” people like to say, “it’s about the journey.” And rarely was that more true than on November 18, 2008. That was the day the CEOs of Ford, GM and Chrysler traveled to Washington to ask Congress to give them a $25 billion bailout, money they said was desperately needed to stay in business.

The only problem – actually, one of several problems – was that each exec traveled to Washington on a private jet. As one blogger noted, the tab to fly private was about $20,000 — more than 20 times higher than a first-class plane ticket. It was not the best optics, and the media made sure everyone knew it.

“Big Three auto CEOs flew private jets to ask for taxpayer money,” CNN reported. Fox News wrote, “Recipients of eight-figure bonuses in 2007, the corporate cowboys used their executive perks … to arrive in style as they went begging before Congress.” And a legislator commented, “It’s almost like seeing a guy show up at the soup kitchen in high hat and tuxedo.” When you have someone from Congress criticizing your lack of fiscal responsibility, you know things are not good.

To their defense, the automakers came to their defense. GM’s spokesman provided a statement asserting, “Making a big to-do about this when issues vital to the jobs of millions of Americans are being discussed in Washington is diverting attention away from a critical debate.”

The Chrysler spokesperson, meanwhile, said the private jet was done as a safety precaution. This may have been true: If the angry taxpayers had known the bailout-seeking CEO was on board, there’s no telling how they might have responded. And the Ford spokesperson merely referred reporters to the company’s travel policy, which, I understand, begins “Don’t drive a Ford.”

The CEOs were properly chastened, and when GM’s exec make a second trip to D.C. in December, The New York Times noted that he had done, “the Kerouac thing.” As the GM spokesman thoughtfully explained, “You have to be sensitive to the symbolism.” The spokesman also noted that GM would be getting rid of its seven jets and, in an additional gesture of shrewd thinking, had scrapped plans to reintroduce the beloved Pontiac Aztek.

Later in December, President Bush signed a relief package worth $24.9 billion. GM and Chrysler would still enter bankruptcy, but better times were ahead – and then, worse times, like Ford’s harassment allegations and Chevy’s faulty ignition switches. With all the wrong turns that have been taken, it’s no wonder the automakers created backup cameras.

All of which is a good reminder for PR pros: The next time your client wants to go through the looking glass, you might have them look in the mirror first.

Join us for our next GFW PRSA luncheon on Wednesday, November 13, at Colonial Country Club!

Newsletters remain among the most common communication tactics. Whether printed or digital, they’re often a significant element of an organization’s overall strategy. Newsletters can provide a way to share information directly with priority audiences, but only if they’re being read. Is your newsletter keeping up with changing reading habits in a social media age?

Join us on November 13 to hear from Kristie Aylett, APR, Fellow PRSA, who will help attendees:

  • Apply industry research and trends to their communication tactics
  • Identify ways to make their newsletters more effective
  • Examine the future viability of newsletters as a PR tool

When: Wednesday, November 13, 2019, 11:30 A.M.  – 1:00 P.M.

Where: Colonial Country Club

Register, here.

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.