Cecil W. Stoughton, White House Press Office (WHPO)
You’ve seen the photo. Everyone has seen the photo. It shows Lyndon B. Johnson being sworn in as president of the United States just hours after the assassination of John F. Kennedy. You remember the photo. Everyone does. That’s because it’s unforgettable.
There’s Johnson, already technically the new head of the free world, but nevertheless with right hand raised, left hand placed on a bible, taking the oath of office. There, too, is Jacqueline Kennedy, former first lady, now a widow, her fresh grief writ large. There as well, squeezed into a stateroom on Air Force One that measured all of 16 square feet, was everyone else, the judge who presided over the ceremony along with White House aides, reporters and secretaries alike, 25 others all told.
But what I never knew until now was that the photo was largely staged. And that the individual chiefly responsible for the choreography involved was President Johnson himself.
It was Johnson who insisted that Mrs. Kennedy be present, and then recruited her to be at his side. It was, in fact, he who enlisted all the other third parties to be on hand, too, believing the more the better. And who made sure the event was photographed, even consulting with the photographer about where everyone should stand and then directing the attendees accordingly.
And the reason LBJ masterminded it all was simple. He intended to send a message to the nation and to the world. He wished to show witnesses to the transfer of power taking place. The photo would make the statement that the U.S. government was still functioning and demonstrate that continuity and stability prevailed.
All this is recounted in a riveting article by the justly renowned Johnson biographer Robert Caro, in the latest edition of the New Yorker.
My point here? LBJ understood, above all, the value of symbolism. As do we. In strategic communications, stagecraft counts.
Indeed, as we advocate for causes – whether to introduce a bill or argue for a change in regulations or simply to spread awareness, and whether we do so on behalf of a federal agency, a foundation, a trade association or a financial institution – a sense of the theatrical comes in handy to make our points. Images matter.
In the long run, we do well to appreciate a certain reality – that all of us, to one degree or another, are collaborating every day in the making of history.
Flickr Creative Commons Photo by Dennis Hill
In the wake of the Supreme Court’s oral arguments on the Affordable Care Act last week, the New York Times had an interesting analysis about the justice’s questioning, which provides some food for thought for people in our line of work.
The Times cited studies confirming that justices “tend to ask more questions of the lawyers whose positions they oppose.” The prevailing wisdom seems to be that the justices like to poke holes in the arguments of the lawyers with whom they philosophically disagree.
I’d prefer to believe that intelligent, inquisitive jurists might be open-minded enough to ask those tough questions to test their pre-conceptions and change their minds if the respondents provide clever or unique answers. But who am I to question the Times, the studies or the justices.
Still, if that’s their attitude, I think it’s exactly the wrong one for people in our business. We bring greater value to our clients by asking them at least as many questions as we’d pose to their adversaries, and make them at least as tough, if not tougher.
To be sure, we want our clients’ public policy opponents to face tough questions from the media, or congressional panels or whoever is responsible for asking them. But we serve our clients best by making sure we prepare them for the kind of inquiries that they’ll get from the other side of the political aisle or argument.
The goal is not to poke holes in our clients’ positions. But to find them and fill them with facts and rebuttals that will stand up to the kind of scrutiny they will face in the public arena. In media training sessions, or mock congressional hearings, I want our clients to be grilled as hard as possible so they are as well prepared as possible for the real deal.
By all means, we should be polite during the grilling (unless, of course, we’re role playing someone for a reputation for contentious behavior). But we’re not doing our clients any favors by tossing them softballs and applauding as they get hit out of the park.
Since none of us has the lifetime appointment of a Supreme Court justice, there’s no reason to act like one. When you get the chance, don’t hold back with our clients. They’ll be better off for it.
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