The best PR campaign of the past 400 years

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Fourth of July is one of my favorite holidays. Who could dislike a
holiday that has burgers, beer, and debauchery as its staples?

Everyone has memories of marching in their hometown parade, of lighting
(or just watching) fireworks, 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 nation
free from
oppression.

You’re probably 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 have been PR
geniuses?

Let’s consider it: They held public prominence in their communities,
earning them their positions in the Continental Congress. 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 not only to declare our
independence, but
also to energize others 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 of every man.

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 Ben Franklin fan or not, you cannot argue with his
panache and international reputation in an age when 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 the articles
and pamphlets
he distributed.

Brand managers 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

If Jefferson left any legacy, it was 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 be read not only by King George,
but also by two other important groups: his compatriots, who needed
their feelings
articulated in an eloquent and comprehensive way, and loyalists, who
might 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

You’d be hard pressed 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 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 such as 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,
trying to
convince visitors that they led brilliantly by their own wisdom (or at
least as best they could, considering the historical context of their
terms).

[RELATED: Register for our PR Writers Summit by Aug. 1 to get an early-bird discount.]

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 manager, 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 important,
the public will listen.

Pause to reflect

So, this holiday, enjoy your franks and your frank relatives, sip your
beer 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.

A version of this article originally appeared on
the Water and Wall Group blog.

Mark LaVoie is a senior account executive at Water & Wall Group. A version of this article originally appeared on the firm’s blog.

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