In the midst of election season political news is at a fever pitch and at the center of it are a range of personalities, whose fate rests, many times, more on their ability to relate to the public than their record.
Election season stokes a renewed interest in understanding where each President ranks historically, their favorability, their performances and their places in history. We reference a special edition Harris Publication aptly named American Presidents: The Greatest…And The Worst, which has published a composite of authoritative Presidential rankings featuring the Arthur Schlesinger 1996, Wall Street Journal 2005, C-SPAN 2009, Siena College 2010 and American Political Science Association 2015 polls.
What we found was that the top 10 was peppered with PR experts all around them. To be sure, this isn’t to dismiss their achievements while in office, but among the top 10 rest some of the greatest public relations Presidents in our history, we took a closer look at some of them, as we look at how PR is an essential tool to a successful political candidacy and then his or her service in office.
#1 – Abraham Lincoln
Lincoln is consistently ranked among the top three Presidents in American History and while his leadership of a fractured union through the Civil War cannot be overstated as a landmark achievement, he is also remembered as one of the most beautiful writers and gifted orators of all Commanders in Chief.
The Gettysburg Address was roughly 270 spoken words. Rarely has anyone been able to say so much with so little.
#2 – George Washington
America’s first Chief Executive is a case study in a word-of-mouth campaign. Washington’s exploits during the Revolutionary War set in motion an admiration of his leadership and valor that spread across the young country rendering him an almost mythological being.
He had wooden teeth, threw a silver dollar across the Potomac, chopped down a cherry tree when he was six years old, and of course, never told a lie.
It certainly didn’t hurt that Washington’s primary publicist, er aide-de-camp, during the Revolution was a young Alexander Hamilton – a political virtuoso who was perhaps the most prolific writer of all the Founding Fathers.
#3 – Franklin Roosevelt
It wasn’t just FDR’s myriad economic programs, most of which were implemented in his first 100 days in office, it was his ability to communicate the complex programs to the American People in a way that they understood. On March 12, 1933, after FDR moved swiftly to stem the banking crisis, he took to the airwaves for what would be the first of his famed Fireside Chats. He begins, “I want to talk for a few minutes with the people of the United States about banking…I want to tell you what has been done in the last few days, why it was done, and what the next steps are going to be.”
The American People had never been spoken to like that by a President, much less in their own homes. FDR used the relatively new medium of radio masterfully and part of his brilliance was in expanding the reach of radio with his Rural Electrification Act.
#4 – Theodore Roosevelt
It’s hard to name a President who was branded more effectively than Teddy. An adventurous man who combined intellect and bravado like few before him came to be known by such famous monikers as Rough Rider, Bull Moose and Trust Buster.
But Teddy’s savviest PR move is commemorated not by his own nickname, but that which he bestowed upon the White House – the Bully Pulpit. Teddy recognized the terrific platform the White House provided to push his agenda and he did so brilliantly. Perhaps the first form of media relations, throughout his many held offices – Governor, Police Commissioner and especially President – Roosevelt maintained strong bonds with the journalists of the day – whom he famously referred to in a 1906 speech as muckrakers.
#5 – Thomas Jefferson
If Alexander Hamilton was the most prolific penman of the Revolution, then his bitter rival Jefferson was certainly his closest challenger. Quite possibly the most famous words in American History – “We hold these truths to be self-evident” – were the work of the 33 year old Virginian.
Jefferson was such a PR wizard, he championed a political ideology he, himself, barely subscribed to. But so effective was his position and captivating were his words, they set the stage for the first political parties and still form the basis of the platform for the Republican Party today.
#7 – Dwight Eisenhower
An underrated writer, Dwight D. Eisenhower’s ability to write effective communiques in the middle of the greatest war the world has ever known is an overshadowed component of his time leading the Allies in Europe. It illustrated the deft political ability of a man belied by his not wanting to run and whose political leaning the world did not know until he finally told us.
For a man who was initially reluctant to campaign, his candidacy spawned the most famous campaign slogan of all time – “I Like Ike” – and everyone did. Perfecting the image of a warm but shrewd, a pragmatic but decisive leader, Ike ushered the country through difficult times and enjoyed the highest average approval rating of any President post-1937, with the exception of JFK, according to Gallup.
Which brings us to our last Presidential PR guru…
#10 – John F. Kennedy
We’ve mentioned the average approval rating of 70+, unfathomable in today’s political climate, but JFK’s relationship with the public goes well beyond that. With good looks, the pedigree of the famous Kennedy name and a beautiful style icon for a wife, people actually wanted to be John F. Kennedy.
In 1960, the Presidential debate was televised for the first time and Kennedy was no doubt the beneficiary. In the same way FDR dominated the radio airwaves, Kennedy was made for TV. As his opponent appeared sickly and battled perspiration, Kennedy looked tanned, calm and collected. Many listening on the radio believed Nixon the winner, but for the millions of Americans watching the debate on television, Kennedy was the unanimous choice.
The impact of the family’s influence cannot be downplayed. The ability for the Kennedy family to cover up negative stories and scandals was possibly the sharpest instrument in their PR toolkit.
Looking at how media covers Presidential politics, one would need to be a master at PR to succeed in politics today.