Lessons from 1600 Pennsylvania Ave
As Olmstead Williams Communication’s summer intern, I have had the opportunity to spend the last few weeks familiarizing myself with the business of public relations through helping in the day-to-day functions of the office. The other day Tracy kindly bought us all tickets to go to PRSA’s “Presidential Perspectives,” an event consisting of a panel of White House communications officials. The list of attendees consisted of: Camille Johnston, Director of Communications for First Lady Michelle Obama: Noelia Rodriguez, Press Secretary to First Lady Laura Bush: Sheila Tate, Press Secretary to First Lady Nancy Regan: and David Demarest, Directors of Communications for President George H. W. Bush. With such a prestigious cast, I was sure the evening would be full of tales straight out of The West Wing. To my surprise, the advice of the top communications professionals in the industry reinforced simple, common sense PR knowledge that all professionals would benefit to hear again. Here are some of their stories and advice:
Prepare for the unexpected
Best-laid plans often go awry, as when the terrorist attacks of 9/11 derailed First Lady Laura Bush’s plans to brief the Senate Education Committee, chaired by Edward M. Kennedy, on the findings of an early childhood development conference, an issue that was extremely important to her. As Mrs. Bush and Noelia Rodriguez quickly learned, flexibility and an ability to table long-held plans is a requirement when dealing with crisis communications. In all types of crises, not just on a historic scale, the more open to change one is, the quicker and more effectively one can respond.
Good PR is all about playing to the client’s strengths and personality
Public relations experts must intimately know a client’s strengths and weaknesses in order to enable their client’s best performance in public situations. When President George H. W. Bush was campaigning in Iowa, his speech writer made the mistake of having him quote a line from the famous Greek philosopher, Themistocles. I believe most of us are aware that, although a great leader in other ways, President Bush has a tendency to get tongue-tied when giving speeches. In a gesture of smart PR, the public relations person on site scratched out “Themistocles,” replacing it with “Plato.”
Proactive PR can go a long way
When First Lady Michelle Obama began planting her vegetable garden on the South Lawn, her main goal was to teach children about healthful eating in a time when obesity and diabetes has become a national concern. This innovative, proactive gesture helped Mrs. Obama form a great impression as the nation’s First Lady. When visiting dignitaries arrive at the White House, the first thing they ask to see is the famous vegetable garden. First impressions are a powerful tool for PR experts since good opinions, once formed, are harder to change than bad ones.
Proactive efforts can also serve the client by being a platform for action. A gesture, like the planting of the garden, can be a positive symbol that unites people behind an idea. In this case, Mrs. Obama used the publicity gained by the garden to form “Let’s Move,” a national campaign which she hopes will help solve the nation’s problem with childhood obesity within a generation. Without a proactive campaign, Mrs. Obama would not have the momentum and public support necessary for such an ambitious undertaking.
The hardest and most important part of Public Relations is telling the client when he or she is wrong…
…And the press secretary to the President of the United States probably finds this more difficult than most. However, when managing the reputation of a client, it is a PR professional’s duty to speak up when that client is about to make a mistake. One of the most important skills a PR expert can have is the ability to create and maintain open, honest channels of communication between client and agent. However, when President George H. W. Bush asks “Was anyone else in this room elected President?” it is time to back down.
This entry was written by Ashton Uytengsu, posted on July 21, 2010 at 11:11 am.
Tagged with: Blair Herman • Camille Johnson • David Demarest • Noelia Rodriguez • olmstead williams communications • Presidential Perspectives • PRSA • Sheila Tate • tracy williams