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A New Image: Cultivating Culture & Class in America

Public relations campaigns are everywhere and everyone seems to be a part of them. Whether for a political campaign, club opening or even a new product line, they seem to surround us and remain an integral part of the public relations world. While PR campaigns seem to play a vital role in the futures of politicians, celebrities and even Fortune 500 companies, maybe the one most in need of a PR campaign and image overhaul is a significant global power and world leader that we are all-too-familiar with. It may be considered a substantial undertaking and even unnecessary to some, but perhaps the “one” in need of a new image is our own country- the United States of America.

I had barely recovered from jet lag and only tasted a few bites of my first wiener schnitzel in Austria this summer before I was slapped in the face. No, I was not slapped by an angry Austrian man sporting lederhosen who suggested I drink more “house beer,” but rather by reality, and the reality was this: the Europeans were more consciously aware of the daily happenings on Wall Street or in the Senate than most Americans. They blew me away with more statistics, figures and opinions than I could ever imagine and wanted to discuss politics wherever we went. It did not matter if we were at a downtown café drinking cappuccinos or hiking in the Alps, they wanted to talk about our life, culture and political scene whenever I would allow it. While this knowledge and curiosity piqued my interest, I was left to answer some unsettling questions, but one stands out in my mind.

“Why are you bothering to learn a second language?  No one else in the United States does…”

That last question struck the wrong chord with me, especially after considering the fact that I was in Austria studying advanced German. However, it left me wondering: if the rest of the world regards us as dumb, lazy and wasteful Americans (as I was told by many Europeans), why don’t we do something as a country to change this general perception? While a public relations campaign focusing on America’s image might not be considered a high priority on Obama’s agenda with an economic crisis at hand, it might not be such a bad issue to tackle in the near future. What better way to erase the stereotypical image of overweight Americans driving Hummers to McDonald’s than by creating a public relations campaign focusing on educating Americans about literature, art, music and secondary languages?

While the White House is filled with many advisors scurrying about, telling the president what to say and how to maintain his image, perhaps the greatest advantage to any president is not the PR professional, but rather… the president’s spouse.

Let’s look back to the 1960s, a time when the United States was dealing with the Cuban missile crisis and nuclear policy causing rocky relations with France. Despite these troubles, one of President John F. Kennedy’s finest attributes was not his youth or charm, but rather his wife, Jacqueline Kennedy, who acted as a magnificent public relations asset.

President Kennedy was barely inaugurated on snow-covered Capitol Hill in January of 1961 when Jacqueline Kennedy began her White House “transformation” with a goal to make the White House a “showcase for great American art and artists.” Her plan for establishing culture and class in America came into full swing after an official presidential trip to Paris.

While JFK and French President Charles de Gaulle were at odds over the development of nuclear weapons, Jackie was wowing the people of France. Before their arrival, Jackie had the White House press secretary arrange an interview with French national television where she spoke in fluent French for 15 minutes over her love of the arts and Paris. This public relations endeavor proved successful, as Mr. and Mrs. Kennedy were greeted by a crowd of 500,000 Parisians, enthralled and captivated by the “first couple.” Jackie enraptured President de Gaulle, as well, as he later told JFK that she “knew more French history than most French women.”

If the PR world had a hall of fame, Jacqueline Kennedy’s next PR feat would be in it. After her Paris visit, not only did she continue to nurture the relationship between France and the U.S. as the First Lady, she began promoting art, literature and music in America by inviting France’s Minister of Cultural Affairs, André Malraux, to the White House.

Some may claim event planning is not part of the PR world, but Jackie was one woman who could successfully pull off a political agenda and throw a lavish affair flawlessly. Prior to Malraux’s visit, Jackie spent five weeks meticulously planning his visit. She met Malraux at the National Gallery of Art (also a great press photo opportunity) where she gave him her own personal tour and spoke of the international significance of great art.

Mrs. Kennedy united the cultural world that night. In Malraux’s honor, she planned an extravagant state dinner where America’s finest artists, writers and musicians were brought together. As described in Vanity Fair, “The gathering of the most accomplished men and women of the American cultural scene not only underscored Kennedys’ support of the arts, but also demonstrated how adept Jackie was at employing the arts in order to add prestige to Jack’s presidency.”

And the result of such a grand evening? Minister Malraux agreed to make arrangements to have Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece, Mona Lisa, brought to America which was the only time France had ever willingly agreed to let their beloved work visit another country.

The arrival of the Mona Lisa began to inspire America and made a lasting impression on Kennedy’s time in office. The masterpiece attracted millions of Americans, engaging and interesting them in art. As Arthur Schlesinger described, it was an exhilarating time in which “Washington engaged in a collective effort to make itself brighter, gayer, and more intellectual. The First Lady was at the center of this new feeling.”

Jackie touched the nation. She spoke superb French, enjoyed the arts, read masterpieces, entertained often and inspired women with her impeccable style and flair. Jacqueline Kennedy established the new American ideal. President Kennedy took his place on the international stage, but he did not do so alone like many presidents of the past. He made his mark on the world with Jackie at his side who acted not only as a wife, mother, and an art enthusiast, but as a diplomat, ambassador and First Lady.

Jacqueline Kennedy is still regarded as one of the greatest First Ladies of our time. And although she may not officially possess the title, she was an exquisite public relations practitioner who not only promoted art, literature, music and other cultures, but also established a new standard of living for the American way of life.

Reinstating this way of life and restoring America’s tarnished reputation should not be hard to accomplish, especially considering that our next First Lady, Michelle Obama, is regarded by some as the next Jacqueline Kennedy. This Princeton and Harvard Law grad is not only well-educated, but she also possesses an innate sense of style, similar to Jackie’s, and could be the chief proprietor in re-inventing America’s image.



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The Biggest Threats Facing PR

Earlier this year, when reading a colleague’s blog post, it occurred to me that there are some very real threats facing us as PR Practitioners, both in terms of detriment to the field and harm to third party participants.

I am accustomed to thinking that there are no real threats, just challenges that are in need of adaptive approaches or strategies. If life gives you lemons, make lemonade… if life gives you oranges, make orange juice… and so forth and so on through the list of palatable fruits.

But the article about the danger of the site juicycampus.com made me think about the very real impacts of making sites available that destroy the efforts of PR. At first, you might think that putting the power in the hands of regular media consumers would be good- that it might help keep things accountable, and if something horrible happens, we simply do our jobs as usual and get things back on track.

No, sites like these have proven records of direct physical harm to the users and their families/friends. Juicy Campus has led to depression and suicidal tendencies. YouTube has fostered a subculture of users who record children beating each other up. Facebook has developed a generation of users who stalk long lost acquaintances down.

The point is not that the users themselves or the tools they use are the sole threats. The threat is that together, unchecked, unmediated, without that set of risk and strategic management skills that PR fosters, not only will we suffer as PR practitioners, but society will begin to see a degradation in moral fiber.

However, this will also hurt us directly—in the same way that the media is and has been hurting us as well through lack of proper and adequate representation or understanding of what it is we do.

In the movie “Phonebooth,” a moderately entertaining psychological thriller about a man trapped in a phone booth by a terrorist, the man claims to practice PR as a “publicist.” This man’s daily routines involve twisting the truth, bribing, manipulation and complete dishonesty in order to only be considered “small time.” He uses the words “public relations” and “publicist” very clearly.

This stereotype is reinforced in shows like “Spin City” and movies like “How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days,” often mistakenly combining the field with the field of advertising. While these are usually light-hearted and acceptable, we all know the dangers of mistaking the definition of PR from impressions on the silver screen and that PR is not “evil,” as the media may portray it. What we do not realize is its very real effect on those who don’t realize its falsity, and whom are now looking for revenge – a power put in their hands by the social networks, the online media platforms and the many blog sites available online.

We are in danger of being replaced by a subculture that does not believe we are necessary, but who do not have the facts, the training or the mindset to argue back effectively. They don’t need their facts checked, and they don’t have to care for another human being – they just have to have an agenda.

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