Public Relations Lessons from the Late Great John F Kennedy

Politicians are excellent at a certain rhetoric device called “framing.” They know how to switch conversations to more favorable topics, they know how to avoid the ugly answers, and sometimes they can flip a public relations disaster into an underdog victory.

On the 50th anniversary of his assassination, I’m going to show you how JFK did just that, winning over the audience as an underdog even after some sharp criticisms from Harry Truman.

Background story:

In 1960, just before the Democratic National Convention, Harry Truman openly criticized his own party for favoring JFK’s presidential nomination. He attacked JFK on multiple fronts, including his age, lack of experience, his powerful political backing that “pressured” votes, among other things. This was the last Democrat president to hold office, not only contributing bad press to JFK’s political career, but asking him to step down from the Presidential race. Naturally, this was a public relations disaster

Kennedy now had a couple of options. What would you do if a leader in your industry attacked the very core of your business, of your character? Would ignoring it help you or hurt you? Is there a chance you could position yourself in a way that leverages the criticism as an advantage? You already know what I’m going to say.

Using some crazy form of PR Jujitsu, JFK took everything Truman said, and using the weight of Truman’s own words, came out on top. He presented his weaknesses as strengths. He did this on live television in the style of a Western showdown. It was dramatic. The end result was that JFK positioned himself as an underdog hero representing the emerging generation, his “new frontier.” And of course, he won the presidency.

So how did he do it? What lessons can we take away from his victory?

(The implicit 1st rule of his success here is that you must view your obstacles as opportunities. If the paradigm is always pointed to the positive and the possible advantageous outcomes, it is not difficult to turn a negative situation around.)

1. Pick Your Battles Wisely

The internet has made PR as confusing as it has ever been. At any time, from any angle, your image could be attacked. How do you deal with that kind of pressure?

Evidence suggests that often you can ignore it.

Ryan Holiday recently wrote a brilliant article about negative press. In it, he says that the first lesson is, “A significant portion of all criticism (especially online) is just trolling. It depends on and desires your participation. Opt out and you’ve robbed it of the oxygen it needs.” Smaller people bate larger people for a response. Don’t acknowledge it. You’re simply giving fuel to criticism that otherwise would not have taken off. Jay-Z never needs to acknowledge some loud mouthed no name, because nobody hears the dude. But if he does acknowledge, the position of the no name has suddenly been given a platform.

Look at it this way: you can save your energy for bigger battles. You can save your energy to make a better product.

However, JFK was criticized by the former president of the United States, the last Democrat to hold that office. That he chose to respond proves that Kennedy knew how to pick his battles wisely. John Hellman wrote that his response was so effective that his team was “grateful the attack had given them such a well-publicized opportunity to confront doubts about Kennedy’s qualifications.”

2. Play by the Rules of the Real World

There are about two schools of thought regarding public relations. Option A: all press is good press; Option B: positive press is good press. The real world is not so cut and dry. Wouldn’t it be nice if all of your press was positive? If everybody you knew said nice things about you all the time? Of course! But if the world is anything like the YouTube comments section (not the new boring one), it is filled with trolls, who are embittered and scornful people. The world is also filled with sneakier villains: competitive friends, friendly competitors, attention seeking (read: click baiting) journalists, and faulty team members. And sometimes, shit just happens. You’re going to want be able to respond when something does not go according to favor. It’s something that is really tough to plan for; I’m sure JFK didn’t expect Truman to fire into him with complaints. But bad news is something you should expect.

Sidenote: according to a study published in 2010 (Berger, Sorensen, Rasmussen), sometimes negative press can increase sales, especially when dealing with smaller brands. Here’s the link.

3. “Always Create Compelling Spectacles.”

Robert Greene’s 37th Rule of Power, “Always Create Compelling Spectacles,” comes in quite handy. Since we’ve already established that this is a necessary battle and that, in reality, there is no cut and dry way advice for a response, now we have a story to tell. And we’re going to make this story exciting. Ryan Holiday’s advice is perfect: “If you are to respond, remember this simple rule: The response must be more interesting than the initial salvo.”

John F. Kennedy baked compelling spectacles into all of his actions, which contributed to his public image as a young war hero, fighting for the new frontier for the next generation. This particular event was perfect for bolstering his image.

John Hellman said that Kennedy “chose not to downplay Truman’s remarks, but rather to heighten them into a dramatic crisis.” Furthermore, he said “Kennedy transformed the political problem into a dramatic crisis evoking the showdown toward which the western movies of the day invariably moved.”

Check out Truman’s initial speech:

Now watch Kennedy’s response:

Don’t have time to watch? Here’s what happened:

Kennedy confidently stated: “I do not intend to step aside at anyone’s request.” He then went on to say he had “encountered and survived every kind of opposition,” re-positioning himself as a bold war hero. Kennedy went point by point against Truman’s criticisms, and without emphasizing what Truman said, reasserted his own strengths. He expertly framed the situation in an exciting way. Which leads to the next tip:

4. Learn How to Frame Stories

“If we are to establish a test for the presidency, whereby 14 years in major elective office is insufficient experience, then all but 3 of the 10 possibilities mentioned by Mr. Truman last Saturday must be ruled out. All but a handful of our presidents, since the very founding of our nation, should be ruled out. And every president elevated to that office in the 20th century should have been ruled out, including the three great Democratic presidents, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, and Harry Truman, himself.”-John F. Kennedy (source)

“Kennedy shaped the problem of Truman’s attack into a scenario pleasing to both himself and the public.”-John Hellman

At stake was Kennedy’s reputation and image, and he was vulnerable. Here he stood, directly preceding the nomination, being harshly criticized by the most able person to do so: the last Democratic president. Truman presumably was everything that Kennedy was not: experienced, tactful, and most importantly, organic.

See, Truman actually had a point in his critique. He described Kennedy as a “victim of circumstances,” and blamed “some of his overzealous backers.” He actually said that Kennedy demonstrated ability and energy, but then turned to ask if Kennedy was ready for the country, or if the country was truly ready for him. Truman then urged Kennedy to be patient with his ambition. He hoped that someone with “the greatest possible maturity and experience would be available at this time.”

Kennedy’s response: flawless. He demonstrated his energy and vigor by framing his lack of experience by comparing it to Truman’s own amount of experience. Kennedy’s point: if Truman criticizes Kennedy’s amount of experience, then he is hypocritical. Smarter still, Kennedy ignored what he couldn’t frame: his candidacy’s “overzealous backers.” Instead, he focused on his own battles and experiences and ended up sounded brave, conversely making Truman sound old and bitter. This certainly reflected on his campaign image of the youth leader bringing America into the “New Frontier.”

5. Stay Cool: Smile Through It.

“Just remember this: the cliche “all press is good press” is a cliche because it is true. In six months, no one will remember particulars of a news story you’re freaking out about right now–it probably won’t even make it on Wikipedia. Unless you make it worse by overreacting, saying something stupid or pissing the journalist off even more”-Ryan Holiday

It’s probably a smaller issue than you’re making it out to be. Even if it’s a big deal, put on your actor’s mask and play it cool. Don’t ignite the fire; the spark will die out if you let it. Let’s say a small fire has been kindled: calmly put it out. What does freaking out do? Even if you get the issue under control, you look like a disheveled fool doing so.

John F. Kennedy was the denotation of confident the day he called his July 4th press conference. John Hellman wrote, “Kennedy’s heavy-lidded, detached stare and slightly ironic smile also suggested the young rebel’s attitude.” Robert Greene echoed this, saying he resembled James Dean, “particularly in his air of cool detachment.” Hell, Kennedy was known for his coolness. During the famous 1st televised debate against Richard Nixon, he showed up tanned, toned, and relaxed. This contrasted with a sweaty, anxious Nixon. This leads to the lesson: whether it is a crisis or not, act like it is not. The way it tends to be, you decide the tone of the confrontation. If you’re unreasonably emotional, prepare for some more shitty backlash. Kennedy played it cool, he parlayed his weaknesses into strengths, and he won the crowd. Heed his lessons, protect your image, and master every public relations event, planned or not.


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