3 Times Public Relations Made a Difference in Politics

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Oscar Wilde once famously said, “There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.” In politics, it’s the job of the public relations specialist to make sure the candidate or officeholder gets the press he or she needs to remain in the public eye.

Public relations experts have played an important role in American politics for centuries. Andrew Jackson was the first president to really grasp the important role public relations could play, not just during elections, but also throughout his presidency. Enlisting the aid of attorney and journalist Amos Kennedy, Jackson courted the press to help sway public opinion and even bring the Democratic Party to national prominence.

Since then, public relations has played an even more pivotal role in politics:

Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Fireside Chats
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Image via Flickr by FDR Presidential Library & Museum

Perhaps one of the best uses of PR in 20th century politics is President Franklin Roosevelt’s famous series of fireside chats. Totaling 30 chats in all and broadcast by radio, the name “fireside chats” was chosen to evoke a homey image, bringing President Roosevelt into the homes of millions of people. Roosevelt used each chat to carefully explain the reasons behind his policies and cultivate his image, and his frank and cheery delivery earned him one of the highest popularity ratings of any president. Because they were broadcast on radio, Roosevelt was able to prevent the public from seeing him as a polio victim.

Obama: Be the Change

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Image via Flickr by foreverdigital

Featuring inspiring but brief messages like, “Change,” “Hope,” “Progress,” and “Yes, We Can,” President Obama’s iconic posters tapped into the country’s desire to break barriers and explore new ideas, and his commitment to using social media to spread his message reached audiences in new and powerful ways. The 2008 campaign also prominently featured a website dedicated to disproving claims that Obama was not an American citizen and was of the Muslim faith. The website is still active and remains a part of the administration’s public relations initiative. The grassroots nature of the campaign was actually a carefully orchestrated public relations technique aimed at helping young and disenfranchised voters feel empowered. Voter turnout was the highest in more than 40 years.

George H.W. Bush and the Revolving Door
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Image via Flickr

Of course, in politics, not every use of public relations emphasizes the positive aspects of a candidate’s campaign. PR can also be used to draw attention to the less-than-ideal qualities of the opponent. In the so-called revolving door ad, Bush’s political consultants Roger Ailes and Lee Atwater used PR to focus on what they called opponent Michael Dukakis’ soft stance on crime. Featuring actors playing convicted criminals entering and exiting prisons through a revolving door, the ad’s dark music and ominous voiceover combined to portray Dukakis as being a possible threat to Americans’ personal security. The ad was considered a major factor in Bush’s victory over Dukakis. The lesson is the same for all these ads: At every level of politics, a skilled public relations team is one of the most valuable assets a candidate and campaign can possess.