Tuesday, August 01, 2006


Since we live at a time when there are people with motorsports public relations titles who don’t know it’s 101 to return phone calls, answer E-mails or establish solid working relationships with key journalists, I turned to politics to advance my own professional education.

It proved to be a good decision. I believe the term "spin doctor" originated in the political world and the best play the PR game better than anyone else. I guess they have to, since they are working for, well, politicians.

I realize this will be a big shock to those who think PR consists of sitting around the hauler and carrying a driver’s helmet, but the job really is about multi-faceted communications management. When it comes to developing talking points, framing the issue, taking the message to the public via the media, or staging a photo-op, there’s no one I’d rather learn from than the likes of James Carville and Michael Deaver.

Many consider Bill Clinton, aided and abetted by “Ragin Cagin” Carville and his famous war room, to have set the standard for “spinning.” I’d say the two savviest PR presidents -- at least in my lifetime -- were John Kennedy and Ronald Reagan. I’ve been researching this aspect of their careers and it has been time well-invested and certainly very instructive. (Interesting fact, at least to me, is they rank as the youngest and oldest elected presidents: Kennedy at 43; Reagan at 69.)

Kennedy and his advisors were in the vanguard of understanding media manipulation was a tool to help them obtain and wield power. That was crucial in the 1960 campaign since the senator needed to overcome the public perception he was inexperienced. For the first of his historic televised debates with Richard Nixon, JFK's handlers made sure he was well rested, suntanned, and dressed him in a dark suit so he would stand out against the light background on black-and-white TV. The visual contrast to then-Vice President Nixon’s sweaty, almost faded, appearance was striking. Polls later revealed the majority of those who watched considered Kennedy the winner; those who listened on radio favored Nixon.

There are many other examples of Kennedy’s skillful PR: The carefully orchestrated (but seemingly spontaneous) photos with his glamorous wife and young children; the touch football games; sailing off the Massachusetts coast; use of humor during the first-ever “live” televised press conferences. After his assassination, sympathetic authors cast Kennedy’s 1,000 days in the White House as Camelot, an image that endures to this day. Other historians have since revealed the warm family snapshots covered-up infidelity; pictures of a vigorous and active leader masked chronic illness and the need for potent medications.

Kennedy energized the country with the greatest and most expensive PR stunt in history when he announced his goal of sending a man -- an AMERICAN -- to the moon. You don't think that only was about science, do you? Not during the Cold War, when the U.S. battled the Soviet Union on every front, for national pride and international approval. As someone who grew up inspired by the space program, that decision alone made him seem a hero to me.

A History Channel documentary recounted a pre-election strategy meeting in which JFK showed himself to be PR brilliant, or cynical, or perhaps both.It’s not WHO you are. It’s who people THINK you are.”

Reagan (photo courtesy of The Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation, all rights reserved) was admired even by his critics as “The Great Communicator.” A film and TV actor before his election as governor of California and then the 40th POTUS, Reagan elevated the role of Commander-in-Chief to Communicator-in-Chief for eight years. The presentation and content of Reagan’s speeches (many written by Peggy Noonan, a political wordsmith worth studying) reverberate even today. Consider this photograph: That, my friends, is the image of a strong, confident, optimistic leader. It would be most useful for anyone in the communications business – especially those charged with helping others communicate effectively – to review these videos:

First Inaugural Address, 1981: “Why shouldn’t we believe that (USA could solve its problems)? We are Americans.”

To Congress, citing warm wishes he received after being shot, 1981: “As a matter of fact, as evidence of that I have a letter with me. The letter came from Peter Sweeney. He's in the second grade in the Riverside School in Rockville Centre, and he said, ‘I hope you get well quick or you might have to make a speech in your pajamas.’ He added a postscript. `P.S. If you have to make a speech in your pajamas, I warned you.’ ”

Speech to the British Parliament about the Soviet Union, 1982: “What I am describing now is a plan and a hope for the long term -- the march of freedom and democracy which will leave Marxism-Leninism on the ash-heap of history as it has left other tyrannies which stifle the freedom and muzzle the self-expression of the people.”

In France, on the 40th anniversary of D-Day, 1984: “These are the boys of Pointe du Hoc. These are the men who took the cliffs. These are the champions who helped free a continent. These are the heroes who helped end a war.”

Comforting the nation when the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded, 1986: (The astronauts) “slipped the surly bonds of earth” to “touch the face of God.”

At the Berlin Wall, 1987: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” (State Department spinners removed that sentence from the original text. Reagan hand-wrote it back in.)

Farewell Address, 1989: “I never thought it was my style or the words I used that made a difference: It was the content. I wasn't a great communicator, but I communicated great things, and they didn't spring full bloom from my brow, they came from the heart of a great nation -- from our experience, our wisdom, and our belief in the principles that have guided us for two centuries. They called it the Reagan revolution. Well, I'll accept that, but for me it always seemed more like the great rediscovery, a rediscovery of our values and our common sense.”

Deaver was Reagan’s long-time SD and a true master of staging the visual. His photo-ops -- positioning the president with the flag, children, soldiers and red-white-blue balloons – became the template for all who followed. I highly recommend Deaver’s A Different Drummer {HarperCollins, 2001}, which I consider to be a PR textbook, and he surprised me by revealing Reagan didn’t like still photo sessions. (Although, I discovered elsewhere, Reagan admitted he knew what he looked like photographed from any angle. What a powerful bit of knowledge!)

Deaver says Reagan didn't use makeup but an occasional glass of red wine would put color into his cheeks. "I was always hypersensitive to the way Reagan looked and how he came across to the average American. If you could summarize my role with Reagan for all those years, I guess you could say I was the guy who helped him look good, but, really, all I ever did was light him well." Deaver adds that Reagan "truly believed the television camera was a friend, a device that would separate the real from the phony . . . Imagine if every candidate understood that he couldn’t fool the camera.”

Every time I see a PR rep allowing his/her driver to be interviewed in front of a Port-a-John, or with a competing sponsor’s identity in the background, or with a pulled-down uniform or backwards cap, I always think of Deaver’s acute awareness of how Reagan looked and what was in the picture with him.

(While I’m endorsing books, let me add Spin Cycle: How the White House and the Media Manipulate the News {Touchstone, 1998}, by Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post. I’ll admit to having used several Clinton-era PR tricks I picked-up in these pages. It was on my bookshelf until I loaned it to Chip Williams several years ago. He never returned it, despite my repeated requests.)

Occasionally, I’m asked, “Why SpinDoctor500?” It symbolizes my respect for the political pros. I don’t care if you are promoting Dale Earnhardt Jr. or Tony Stewart, Danica Patrick or Marco Andretti, Sebastien Bourdais or Katherine Legge, Whit Bazemore or Morgan Lucas, Patrick Long or Colin Braun, there’s much to be learned from those outside the racing realm. If one cares to, that is.

Call that, if you wish, a political statement.

[ Thursday: Covering the Coverage . . . ]