Two Examples of Bad PR, Q3 2014

Former Secret Service Director Julia Pierson in America’s hottest hotseat–a hearing on Capitol Hill.

United States Secret Service: The Secret Service has enjoyed decades of sterling reputation as the law enforcement agency that protects the president of the United States. Now, thanks to a series of scandals and lapses, the Secret Service has joined the sad ranks of the Veterans Administration and the IRS as just another federal body held in disdain by the public for lax standards and poor performance.

The reputational slide began in the first year of the Obama administration when reality show stars Michaele and Tareq Salahi crashed a state dinner, making it past two security checkpoints to shake hands with the president. In 2012, numerous Secret Service agents were caught soliciting prostitutes in Cartagena, Columbia, in advance of the Summit of the Americas attended by President Obama and other heads of state. Other episodes of misconduct followed including an agent found passed out drunk in an Amsterdam hotel hallway preceding an European summit.

The Secret Service went into crisis mode on September 19, 2014, when an intruder carrying a knife jumped the White House fence and entered the building, running through much of the ground floor before being tackled. Agent mistakes and a deactivated alarm made the breach possible. As is often the case with crises, revelations surfaced of other incidents–a bungled response to shots fired at the White House in 2011; an armed security guard allowed to share an elevator with President Obama in 2014, violating Secret Service procedures.

To answer for the lapses, Secret Service Director Julia Pierson sat in America’s hottest hotseat–a Capitol Hill hearing–giving an evasive performance that only fanned criticism of the agency. The next day, she resigned under intense pressure.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell faces ongoing criticism over his handling of domestic violence among players.

National Football League: By pure business measures, the NFL is at its peak, the most lucrative sports league in the world, setting new marks for revenue. By public relations measures, the NFL is at a nadir, wracked by revelations of players committing spousal and child abuse, with league and team leaders accused of minimizing and possibly covering up the crimes.

In February, Ray Rice of the Baltimore Ravens was arrested along with his now-wife Janay for an altercation at an Atlantic City casino. Video heightened the crisis–a clip in February of Rice dragging an unconscious Janay out of an elevator and a September bombshell showing Rice leveling Janay inside the elevator with a left hook. In the time period between the videos, Rice received supportive words from his coach, a lenient sentence from law enforcement, and an equally lenient two-game suspension from NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.

AP reported that law enforcement sent the security footage of the punch to the NFL, with receipt of the footage acknowledged in a voicemail. Even as Rice was suspended indefinitely from the league and fired from the Ravens, the NFL was accused of sitting on the damning footage.

In May, Adrian Peterson of the Minnesota Vikings, beat his four-year-old son with a switch (a stripped tree branch) to discipline him for pushing another one of Peterson’s sons off a motorbike video game. The four-year-old suffered lacerations to his back, limbs, buttocks and scrotum, reported by a doctor. A grand jury decided not to indict Peterson, but law enforcement in Montgomery County, Texas, issued an arrest warrant in September.

Like Rice, Peterson received supportive statements and light consequences, being deactivated for one game by the Vikings. The ensuing public uproar, sponsor pullouts, and call for suspension by Minnesota’s Governor Dayton compelled the Vikings to reverse course and put Peterson on the exempt/commissioner’s permission list, barred from team activities but still receiving his salary.

As seen with the Secret Service and Ray Rice, Peterson’s initial crisis led to further scandalous revelations. He had been investigated and not charged in a previous child abuse case. The Star Tribune cited Peterson as the father of at least six children out of wedlock and detailed a sex party at a motel paid for with a credit card from his nonprofit organization. Peterson compounded the crisis by admitting to “smoking a little weed” in October, violating the terms of his bond.

Commissioner Roger Goodell has been the proverbial lightning rod for criticism against the NFL and its perceived culture of leniency and complicity regarding players’ misdeeds. Like Julia Pierson on Capitol Hill, he has been dunned for evasive public statements and an inability to bring accountability to his organization. It remains to be seen if he will follow Pierson’s example to the end with a resignation.

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Jack Bruce, 1943-2014

Jack Bruce, legendary bassist, composer and vocalist, passed away on October 25. Attaining superstar status in the mid 1960s as a member of the group Cream, Mr. Bruce inspired generations of bass players, including yours truly. I feature him among my favorite bassists on “The Funk” page of this blogsite. Rest in peace, Jack Bruce.

Jack Bruce official website

New York Times obituary

Cream reunion, 2005, Royal Albert Hall, “Crossroads”

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The Creel Committee: 100 Years of Strategic Communication

America’s Answer, one of the films produced by the Creel Committee.

The Wall Street Journal marks the 100-year anniversary of World War I’s commencement by noting 100 legacies of the war, technological, political and social shifts of the era that affect us to this day. Propaganda is among the listed legacies: “how governments tried to influence their citizens with bold, widely circulated messages in posters, leaflets, newspapers, speeches and other emerging media such as film.”

The British and Germans had a head start on the war, giving them a head start inĀ  propaganda that was creative, vivid and inflammatory. In 1917, Woodrow Wilson, who had won reelection with the slogan “he kept us out of war,” knew he had to marshal public opinion as America entered the conflict. The president established the Committee on Public Information (CPI) and named George Creel, journalist and Wilson supporter, as its chairman. The purpose was propaganda, which as numerous PR observers point out had not yet received its negative connotation among the public.

In his autobiography, Creel asserts that he did not seek “propaganda as the Germans defined it, but propaganda in the true sense of the word, meaning the ‘propagation of faith.'” Per author David Hackett Fischer, “Creel combined the principles of Woodrow Wilson with the temperament of Teddy Roosevelt. Barely five feet seven inches tall, he boxed with professional prize fighters, married a prominent actress, played the lead role in a western movie, and vastly enjoyed the excitement of politics.”

The CPI became commonly known as the Creel Committee as its leader promulgated pro-war, pro-America messages with the zeal he had shown in previous years as a muckraking journalist. The committee used and adapted the communication channels of its era–live event, display, print, telegraph/cable, music, and the “new media” of radio and film.

In a 1922 article, Creel describes how he used the wireless advantage of radio to send American war notices to the farthest corners of the conflict, circumventing overloaded, foreign-owned cables. His committee also assimilated the burgeoning technology of motion pictures, producing patriotic films such as Pershing’s Crusaders and America’s Answer. The ancient art of oration met 20th century cinema with the “Four-Minute Men,” a corps of 75,000 public speakers who delivered Creel Committee talking points during breaks between reels.

The Creel Committee assembled a troupe of top illustrators for poster design, including James Montgomery Flagg, creator of the legendary “I Want You” image of Uncle Sam urging enlistment. It published The Official Bulletin, containing positive coverage of the war effort and mass distributed to newspapers and government installations.

Several noted communicators of the 20th century either worked directly for the Creel Committee or wartime organizations associated with it:

Edward Bernays–Often called the father of public relations (a title he encouraged while he outlived his peers), Bernays led the committee’s Latin News Service. Part of the committee team that accompanied President Wilson to the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, he sent out a press release prompting news coverage that “propaganda” was at the heart of the team’s mission, igniting a firestorm.

Carl R. Byoir–Circulation director for Hearst when Creel recruited him to the committee, Byoir acted in a chief operating officer role. His PR firm founded in 1930, Carl R. Byoir & Associates, became one of the world’s largest.

Arthur W. Page–Head of corporate communications at AT&T from 1927 to 1947, Page worked in the G-2-D propaganda subsection for American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) Intelligence in France. According to Page biographer Noel L. Griese, Creel Committee officials worked closely with AEF propaganda staff. In 1945, Page wrote the press release that Harry Truman used to announce the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.

Walter Lippmann–Winner of Pulitzer Prizes in 1958 and 1962, journalist and commentator Walter Lippmann encouraged President Wilson to form what would become the Creel Committee. During the war, he worked with Arthur W. Page in G-2-D. After the war, Lippmann wrote the highly regarded Public Opinion and criticized Creel.

Lippmann’s criticism mirrored the prevailing outlook on the Creel Committee as its funding ended amid the armistice and George Creel’s antagonism toward members of Congress. The word “propaganda” became a pejorative due to backlash against the biased, manipulative torrents of communication produced by Allies and Central Powers alike.

In the century since the Creel Committee, it is easy to spot its excesses, dismiss its simplistic appeals, and ultimately condemn it as the prototype for media madmen from Madison Avenue to the Third Reich. Still, the Creel Committee stands as a study in strategic communication, evidence of the power of unified messaging disseminated through an array of channels to multiple target segments. The global village of McLuhan was founded in the first official global conflict. The Creel Committee recognized and addressed the village.

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