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.

Watershed Moment

How a daredevil’s plunge over Niagara Falls managed to be both a success and a failure

Written by: Jeff Rodriguez, Historian

Some people will go to any length to get some publicity. But others will go to any depth, and such was the case on Oct. 24, 1901, when Annie Edson Taylor successfully plunged over Niagara Falls in a barrel.

Taylor was not the first person to challenge the falls, but she was the first person to survive. Even more impressive, she took the plunge on her 63rd birthday; you know how those seniors love field trips.

But there was a dark side to Taylor’s adventure: It was motivated primarily by a need for money. A widow and former teacher, Taylor had struggled financially for years. The stunt, she hoped, would bring her fame and fortune. And this was years before the premier of “Survivor.”

For a modestly educated retiree, Taylor was quite adept at strategic planning. For one, the Michigan resident planned the trip to coincide with the Pan-American Exposition scheduled for nearby Buffalo. The barrel was custom-made, featuring a mattress and a weighted bottom. She also hired an associate, Frank Russell, to go to New York and generate advance publicity.

And when Taylor arrived, she did a bold but primitive version of A-B testing, sending the barrel over the falls with a cat in it. The feline survived, and Taylor, having dubbed herself “The Queen of the Mist,” posed for photos with the cat and the barrel.

Taylor’s own trip took less than 20 minutes, and like the cat, she emerged relatively unscathed and was greeted by the press. “If it was with my dying breath,” she said, “I would caution anyone against attempting the feat,” possibly adding, “At least not without first signing a non-compete agreement.”

As she had hoped, Taylor enjoyed a burst of celebrity, getting speaking engagements. Unfortunately, the fame did not last long. Adding to her woes, the barrel was stolen, with a prime suspect being her PR man, Frank Russell. Taylor, who had risked her life to achieve financial security, died in poverty at age 82.

Her attempts to discourage others from challenging the falls also were not successful. Since her plunge, more than 25 people are known to have taken the trip, with at least 10 dying. (This does not include the approximately 25 people who die each year during suicide attempts.)

Ultimately, the real PR winner is, of course, the falls themselves. At least 9 million people visit the site each year, which is now supported by a state park (the oldest in the United States), a restaurant, a conference center and an entertainment district. Plans for a giant mural honoring the World Champion Buffalo Bills remain on hold.

Running a successful PR campaign isn’t the easiest thing to do. But the next time a client has you over a barrel, remember that it really could be worse. Because while the sky may be the limit for us, a 160-foot plunge is a different matter.

GFW PRSA October Webinar: The Art and (Brain) Science of Effective Communications

Learn how to craft bite-sized content to get people’s attention from Kristin Graham, principal of culture & communications at Amazon.

About this Event

There’s plenty written on the art of creating content. This conversation, however, will focus on the sexy side of the science. By learning more about information psychology, attention spans, and technology trends, you can better plan communications in today’s digital (and distant) age.

Kristin Graham, principal of culture and communications at Amazon, will share insights about anticipating the needs of today’s evolving audience and how to be more productive in your own day.

Through a collection of “nerd facts,” you’ll learn how to craft bite-sized content to get people’s attention.

Bring your questions and comments for an interactive conversation on how to be heard in today’s digital environment.

 

ORDER OF EVENTS

  • 11:30-11:45 a.m.: GFW PRSA Annual Meeting and presentation and official vote on the 2021 slate of officers
  • 11:45 a.m. – 12:45 p.m.: Program including Q&A

After you register here on Eventbrite, an Outlook calendar notice with the Zoom link will be emailed to you.

Please invite a colleague or friend to this webinar.

 

Kristin Graham, principal of culture & communications at Amazon

A former journalist and current technology leader, Kristin Graham has centered her career on storytelling. Curiosity wove her career from non-profits to Fortune 50s before she moved to leading communications and employee programs for Expedia, Inc.

Her experience includes executive and employee communications, diversity and inclusion, philanthropy, learning & development, and employer branding initiatives. She also ran a global recruiting team for three years and saw up-close the art of negotiation and the art of the ask.

After a year-long travel sabbatical, Kristin joined Amazon where she leads culture and communication programs. At Amazon, she leads the Amazon narrative writing classes, reaching more than 10,000 Amazonians in six countries – and now globally online.

A frequent speaker on the topic of communications and information science, Kristin is part of the Ragan Communications Leadership Council and has given keynotes at organizations like Microsoft, Facebook, Walt Disney World, International Association of Business Communicators, Public Relations Society of America, and the National Investor Relations Institute.

Kristin has a master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University and an executive MBA from the University of Illinois at Chicago.

For more information, visit http://www.kristingrahamcomms.com.

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.