December 18, 2017

How PR Was Used to Start a Nation

Bill Barlow

Bill Barlow
Chairman and CEO/Canavation Product Group

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Few people recognize that public relations are the oldest and most effective marketing methods. So in the middle of my 4th of July weekend, I decided to outline how Public Relations efforts changed America history and highlight some public relations practices still in use today.

Strategic Thinking and Vision

When our founding fathers were at war with Britain, why did they bother to issue a document that they titled the Declaration of Independence? They were at war; they were busy and had to manage their resources. Why didn’t they simply revolt, succeed or denounce Britain? The truth is that in order to succeed at executing their vision of transforming the 13 colonies into becoming an independent state and eventually into becoming a new country, they needed a lot of support. Wikipedia defines the Declaration of Independence as follows:

The Declaration of Independence is a statement adopted by the Continental Congress on July 4, 1776, which announced that the 13 American colonies, then at war with Great Britain, regarded themselves as independent states, and no longer a part of the British Empire. Instead they formed a union that would become a new nation—the United States of America.

As a strategic planner, I know that a published “statement” has quite a bit of thought and meaning behind it. Part of the strategy of developing an effective public relations effort is to articulate specific goals and the desired outcome. These goals, objectives and statements allow others to execute strategic plans and making decisions based on what should be done as detailed in the plans and statements.

So the reason for the Declaration of Independence was to lay the foundation for the agenda of the founding fathers and to give guidance so that supporters had an outline to follow.

Using a Spokesperson

 John Adams is the recognized leader in pushing for independence. In June of 1776, he had already lead Congress to form a committee of five influential people who had already drafted the formal declaration, to be ready when Congress voted on independence. But Adams went a step further. John Adams chose a spokesperson—Thomas Jefferson—to officially write the first official draft of Declaration of Independence. His logic? Public Relations. Adams wanted someone skilled and popular to be the public face of the document which was a tangible representation of their strategic plan. Here again, without public support John Adams' vision for independence could be in jeopardy. History records in Adams’ own notes the internal dialog that he had with Thomas Jefferson in his asking Jefferson to draft the document that would ultimately be presented to the public:

From Adams' notes: "Why will you not? You ought to do it." "I will not." "Why?" "Reasons enough." "What can be your reasons?" "Reason first, you are a Virginian, and a Virginian ought to appear at the head of this business. Reason second, I am obnoxious, suspected, and unpopular. You are very much otherwise. Reason third, you can write ten times better than I can." "Well," said Jefferson, "if you are decided, I will do as well as I can." "Very well. When you have drawn it up, we will have a meeting."

From a public relations perspective so much can be learned from the paragraph above:

  • Perception is Power, “you are a Virginian…”
  • Avoid Conflict and don’t fight uphill battles, “I am obnoxious, suspected, and unpopular. “You are very much otherwise.”
  • Leverage your Strengths, “you can write ten times better than I can”

Use Familiar References

We know that Thomas Jefferson is credited with the first draft of the Declaration of Independence. Many people also assume that because he drafted it that the thoughts and statements are largely his. This is not the case. Historians have often sought to identify the sources that most influenced the words and political philosophy of the Declaration of Independence. By Jefferson's own admission, the Declaration contained no original ideas, but was instead a statement of sentiments widely shared by supporters of the American Revolution. As he explained in 1825:

“Neither aiming at originality of principle or sentiment, nor yet copied from any particular and previous writing, it was intended to be an expression of the American mind, and to give to that expression the proper tone and spirit called for by the occasion.”

Public relations experts have long known that in order to gain the support of people you have to communicate thoughts and idea that are known and familiar. Finding common ground is the best way to gain initial support.

Tangible Tools & References

The Declaration served its original purpose in announcing independence and further justified the independence of the United States by listing colonial grievances against King George III. But the Declaration was ultimately a formal explanation of why Congress should declare independence from Great Britain. A Public Relations tool? You bet; there has never been a better one.

Congress voted and the Declaration of Independence was unanimously approved on July 2, 1776. So why do we celebrate our nations holiday on the 4th of July? The historical reason is that the Declaration of Independence was ratified on July 4. I can’t help but wonder if our founding fathers were looking for another public relations opportunity. At that time congressional sessions were private and held behind closed doors. How would they get the public to embrace the Declaration and ultimately support the founding fathers? What happened next is nothing short of good public relations in action. History states that after ratifying the text on July 4, Congress issued the Declaration of Independence in several forms. It was initially published, widely distributed, read to the public and then put on public display.

But here is some lesser-known trivia. When was the Declaration of Independence signed? Even though the wording of the Declaration was approved on July 4, the date of its signing was August 2, the document was backdated the document in the ceremony to the date of its ratification, July 4, 1776. I imagine that the signing ceremony was a spectacular news event and public gathering orchestrated as a public relations effort. Why do I think this? Because the founding father created a publicity stunt, they wanted the signing to be memorable. This was accomplished by John Hancock.

Hancock's large, flamboyant signature became iconic, so much so that John Hancock emerged in the United States as an informal synonym for "signature”. A commonly circulated but apocryphal account claims that after Hancock signed, the delegate from Massachusetts commented, "The British ministry can read that name without spectacles." Another apocryphal report indicates that Hancock proudly declared, "There! I guess King George will be able to read that!" 

Renewal of Interest

Over time every agenda needs to be refreshed and renewed. By the 1780’s few Americans knew, or cared, who wrote the Declaration of Independence. But in the next decade, Jeffersonian Republicans sought political advantage over their rival Federalists by promoting both the importance of the Declaration and Jefferson as its author. Federalists responded by casting doubt on Jefferson's authorship or originality, and by emphasizing that independence was declared by the whole Congress, with Jefferson as just one member of the drafting committee. Federalists insisted that Congress's act of declaring independence, in which Federalist John Adams had played a major role, was more important than the document announcing that act. But this view, like the Federalist Party, would fade away, and before long the act of declaring independence would become synonymous with the document.

Leveraging the principles of the document, which are the core messages of the agenda, ultimately outweigh the individuals involved. The public relations lesson here is that principles stand the test of time.

Create Memorable Icons

Another powerful public relations tool is to create lasting icons that represent your purpose or agenda. A powerful example of this is John Turnbull’s famous painting of the signing of Declaration of Independence. His oil-on-canvas work was commissioned in 1817, purchased in 1819, and placed in the rotunda at the Capital Building in Washington DC in 1826. His painting was also used on the reverse of the two-dollar bill. Was the use of this painting on common currency a renewal of interest, a display of an icon, a tangible reference, the use of spokespeople, or an opportunity to remind the public, on a daily basis, the values set forth by our founding fathers? Perhaps, yes to all. I would think of it more a strategic long-term vision that has been realized and proved over time.

In any event, John Turnbull’s painting helps to serve as a constant reminder to the Declaration of Independence and the principles for which it was written. It has come to symbolize the origin and formation of the United States as a nation. It is important to note that the signing that was depicted in the painting happened before the formal creation of America. The United States at that time was nothing more than 13 colonies made up of immigrants from other countries. The vision and persistence of the founding fathers together with the support that they created by their public relations efforts literally formed a great nation.

Comments? You can contact me directly via my AdvisoryCloud profile.

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