PR evolutions under the Presidency of Eisenhower, Nixon, Kennedy, Reagan and Thatcher

I received a new book bought on Amazon few days ago, ‘The Media and Political Process‘. I am currently half way through but I wanted to dedicate this post to it as I am particularly enthusiastic about what I have read so far.

The book, by Eric Louw, was recommended as one of the core texts for the Political Communication and Public Affairs module. The book goes through a wide range of topics, from the more obvious ones (e.g. ‘Politics: Image Versus Substance’, ‘Spin-Doctoring: The Art of Political Public Relations’ or  ‘Selling Politicians and Creating Celebrity’), to chapters dealing with subjects that I have not yet encountered (e.g. ‘Selling War/Selling Peace’, ‘The Media and Terrorism’ or ‘The Media and Foreign Relations’).

I cannot sum up the whole book but I will focus on a chapter containing vivid examples that I particularly enjoyed: The Art of Political Public Relations.

What fascinated me was the way that a public relations team can create political celebrities and bring them to the top. Although PR is an American-born discipline, it has widely spread throughout the world, absorbing and adapting to new environments. Ultimately, political communication practitioners actively participated in professionalising and bringing new facets to the discipline.

Louw explains that the arrival of television significantly reshaped the way politicians were perceived by the general public. The pioneers in exploring this new media were Eisenhower and Nixon, for the 1952 and 1956 presidential campaigns. Soundbites, visual grabs and striking slogans started being sent to journalists. Also, the counterparts understood that one of the salient features of a successful televisualised campaign was simplicity. When appearing on screen, it is important to get concision and clarly correct in order to maintin credibility. On the contrary, getting into an in depth argument can lead to failure.

Kennedy’s presidential campaign brought a new dimension to televisualised politics. Religion was a real challenge for the communication team at the time as a young Catholic man was a candidate in a Protestant country, traditionally attached to experienced presidents. Successfully, they managed to turn this issue into a positive by spinning religion into intolerance. In other words, not voting for Kennedy was linked to intolerance. Another important element was his telegenic appearance during the so-called Kennedy-Nixon debate (1960). Ironically, as one of the pioneers of televisualised communication, Nixon did not appear at his best: he did not have make-up, was sweating, wearing too-large a shirt with a wrong colour suit, and he slumped. Conversely, his young challenger was beautifully staged, “relaxed, robust and confident” (Maltese, 1994: 16). Nixon learnt a lesson for his upcoming years, as did other politicians. This debate has remained a milestone in the history of political communication.

Eventually, Nixon gained power and created the first White House Office of Communication in 1969. In a period of trouble with riots, student demonstrations, massive protestations against the Vietnam war and after the assassination of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, the institutionalisation of the presidential image was more necessary than ever. In this way, new PR techniques appeared, such as:

–          The lobbying of columnists and editorial journalists with the national and local media;
–          The ‘man in the arena’ concept (staged questions from ‘ordinary people’ answered on TV);
–          Speaking tours with preparation of chosen speakers to interact with targeted representatives from the public;
–          The stage of hollywoodian actors to embody the President on screen;
–          The offensive strategy: members of the Congress and Senators were provided with information regarding the opposition’s weaknesses.

The arrival of Ronald Reagan brought about continuity in the way that political communicators were working (targeting the local media, speaking tours and grassroots organisations so as to get their messages across), but also novelty with the Rose Garden Strategy. This method consisted of developing online technologies and new opportunities, encompassing the Internet, satellites for ‘live’ television feeds and even a Republican Television Network.

Across the Atlantic, Thatcher kept a close eye on her neighbour’s activity and introduced the American concept of political marketing into the British political landscape. Even though she deeply admired Reagan and his PR successes, she proved herself capable of creating her own style. Unlike Reagan, she refused to have a PR expect present at policy meetings and did not consent to have a similar device to the Political Agenda Control System (technology able to track public opinions responses to Presidential actions) (Scammel, 1995: 271-2). Her governance introduced:

–          Opinion polling and market research. However, Thatcher always refused using market research to dictate her policy;
–          Strong political advertising;
–          Empowered news management;
–          Marketing-focused Party conventions with slogans, lighting, video screens, flags, music, etc.;
–          The television autoprompt;
–          Photo opportunities

Overall, Blair’s accession to power in 1997 will be a turnover in British PR with strong Americanisation. In the following post, I will close this chapter by going back to Blair’s strategy, whilst also reviewing Clinton, George W. Bush and Obama’s political communication.

LOUW, E., 2010. The Media and Political Process. London: Sage Publication Ltd

MALTESE, J. A., 1994. Spin Control: The White House Office of Communication and the Management of Presidential News (2nd Ed.) Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.

SCAMMEL, M., 1995. Designer Politics: How Elections Are Won. London: Macmillan.

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