What’s the Best Public Relations Campaign in the Last 400 Years?

shutterstock_137502698The Fourth of July is one of my favorite holidays of the year. Who can argue with a holiday that has burgers, beer, and debauchery as its staple traditions? Everyone has their own memories of marching in their hometown parade or lighting off fireworks from their backyard, enjoying the beginning of summer with family and friends. The day is filled with celebration, all because 56 men pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor to create a country free from oppression.

I know what you’re thinking – Here we go with another cliché “let’s not forget our Founding Fathers” mantra. I agree, too much of that splashes the front pages of different publications each year. However, let’s put a different lens on this topic (naturally, from a communications standpoint). Could the Founding Fathers be PR geniuses? Let’s consider it: They held public prominence in their communities, earning them their positions in the Continental Congresses. They forged an identity (or brand, if you will) for a new nation and created a public document addressed to the King of England that served to not only declare our independence, but also serve as a model for a number of other people looking to change the political process in their own countries. Pretty inspiring, right? Of course. It may also be one of the best public relations campaigns of the last 400 years.

If we think of the United States as a startup, or a new product launch, the founders did a masterful job with execution. The public had a need (frustrated by taxation without representation; assaulted in the northeast with the battles at Bunker Hill, Lexington and Concord, etc.) They needed a resolution, even if that meant something drastic. The colony had to move forward in order to continue to grow, build its brand, and market itself to the world. The founders met this need with a public decree that announced the colonies as a new, independent nation, seeking to guarantee the inherent rights every man is entitled to.

A successful public relations program requires the mastery of three important areas when building their own brand. Three of our most famous founders each mastered one of these areas, creating a trifecta public relations force that even the British Crown couldn’t defeat.

Benjamin Franklin – Master of Public Image

Whether you’re a Franklin fan or not, you cannot argue with his panache and international reputation in an age where communication was sluggish. His public engagement began as a teenager when he disguised his identity in letters he wrote to The New England Courant, posing instead as a middle-aged widow, Mrs. Silence Dogood. These letters illustrate his humor and wisdom at an early age and earned a swell of attention and praise from Bostonians, becoming Franklin’s first success and spawning what was perhaps the first viral campaign of its time. From there, he moved to The Pennsylvania Gazette where he became editor, wrote renowned articles, and built his social standing in Philadelphia. His personal brand rose with the newspaper’s brand, and the publication quickly became one of the most read in the colonies. Although life in Philadelphia was far from the Appalachian frontier, he never failed at maintaining the frontiersman persona that the French swooned over. It’s with this favor from important French diplomats that he was able to negotiate our military alliance with France and the ultimate victory sealed with the Treaty of Paris.

It’s not a coincidence that this public relations expert always remained tight with the press to leverage his own ideas and public image. He understood the value of media and how it could help accomplish his goals, as seen in many instances where his public influence can be traced to articles and pamphlets he distributed. Brands should look at how Franklin successfully worked with the media to convey his brand and how they can use the press to deliver their own. Tactical and well-articulated pieces hold sway and can shape public opinion, but it’s important to keep one other bit of Franklin’s philosophy in mind: “We must not in the course of public life expect immediate approbation and immediate grateful acknowledgment of our services.” Humility and a realistic approach never hurt in the public sphere.

Thomas Jefferson – Master of the Pen

shutterstock_52266859If Jefferson leaves any legacy behind, it would be his written word. Not only is he the lead author of the Declaration of Independence, for which we celebrate this holiday, but he produced a number of other works that helped shape early American philosophy and debate. His thoughts on paper combined much of the popular thinking of his day, including that of Locke, Hobbes, Montesquieu and Rousseau, and set a tone for the beginning of philosophical application as we set out to embark on a new political experiment.

It’s crucial to articulate your own company’s messages in a purposeful and masterful way, as Jefferson did. It’s also important to ask yourself, who is your audience and what is your communications goal? Jefferson understood that this would not only be read by King George, but two other important groups: his compatriots, who needed their feelings articulated in an eloquent and comprehensive way, and loyalists, who may sway with the new nation or be provoked to flee in allegiance to the old country. He articulated the colonies’ grievances for all, and his chosen words continue to stir emotions today.

George Washington – Master of Thought Leadership

I think you’d be hard set to find someone who doesn’t think Washington is the ultimate American hero. You can’t go to an American town without finding a Washington Street and I work only a few blocks from beautiful Washington Square Park here in New York, where a triumphal arch is dedicated in his honor. He achieved this lofty position in America’s minds and hearts through his tremendous success in war execution and political morality and neutrality.

His innate ability to lead was unquestionable, and with this he organized a nation that continues to aspire to his ability. Behind Washington is a massive amount of evidence that backs up his genius. He created war strategies that won the crucial battles of Saratoga and Yorktown, remained neutral during European conflicts that could have wiped us out, and implemented presidential traditions like the cabinet and inaugural address. Every president since then has aspired to his reputation of thought leadership, or at least some semblance of originality and honor. You see this in every presidential library that’s ever built. Exhibits in these monuments painstakingly build former presidents into idols; convincing you they led brilliantly by their own wisdom (or at least as best they could, considering the historical context of their terms).

Demonstrating thought leadership is crucial if any brand wants to establish third party credibility. Your information has to be excellent, innovative, “out of the box,” and, needless to say, correct. Washington benefitted from early victories; it’s important you get your message out early too. As a brand, think about what the conversation is in your industry and what hasn’t been said. Is it time to change the conversation? Perhaps. If you have a new message, say it. Reporters and, more importantly, the public, will listen.

So this holiday, enjoy your franks and frank relatives, sip your Budweiser by the pool and enjoy the warm sun. However, if you can spare a moment, think about what our Founding Fathers can teach you about public relations. After all, if they weren’t as popular, or as learned, or as tactfully brilliant, we may not have the freedoms we afford today.