US Presidents and PR (1960-Present)
Two interesting ways that US presidents since 1960 have used public relations (PR) to change public opinion are motivational speechwriting and the application of new media platforms. Examples of presidents who have used these tactics include John F. Kennedy (JFK), Lyndon B. Johnson, and Barak Obama.
- The best motivational speeches present an air of authority and command their audience's attention. A motivational speech has the power to remain in the backs of people's minds for years to come and can elicit strong emotions.
- According to the Daily Beast, "a large part of a president’s job is to be a rhetorical leader," and words have the power to both heal and destroy. Presidents like JFK and Obama are among the most frequently cited examples of what it means to use truly inspirational rhetoric.
- One concrete example of a powerful speech delivered by JFK is his 1961 "Man on the Moon" speech. In it, JFK vowed that the US would put a man on the moon by the end of the 1960s. Many people — citizens and Congressmen alike — were skeptical.
- The speech helped JFK secure between $7 billion and $9 billion in additional Congressional funding that would be dedicated to the development of America's space program. On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, and Buzz Aldrin became the first men to walk on the moon.
- Another example of a president who used motivational speechwriting to sway public opinion is Johnson. Many consider his 1965 "We Shall Overcome" speech to be among the most important civil rights milestones in American history.
- Johnson delivered the speech in response to the recent violence against civil rights demonstrators in Selma, Alabama known as "Bloody Sunday." He used the speech to present Congress with legislation that would ultimately be passed as the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Application of New Media Platforms
- Politicians often use the media to influence their base. This becomes interesting when they manage to find new and innovative ways to use emerging media platforms to their advantage.
- Beginning around the 1960s, television became a massively popular media platform and would be followed by such technological innovations as the internet, smartphones, and social media.
- One notable example of a president leveraging a new media platform is JFK. During his televised debate with Richard Nixon in 1960, television was a relatively new medium. Though the debate drew over 70 million viewers, many people still listened to it on the radio.
- JFK used television to his advantage, and his combined good looks and charisma successfully swayed public opinion. Most radio listeners felt that Nixon won the debate, while an overwhelming majority of television viewers sided with JFK.
- Historians attribute two results to this televised debate: record-setting voter turnout and JFK's ultimate victory. He was both the youngest president voted into office and the first Roman Catholic.
- Obama is considered the first president of the social media age, and social networking played an important role in his campaign strategy. He specifically targeted young Millennial voters during the 2008 election, who have the highest rate of social media consumption among all generations.
- His campaign connected with voters on popular platforms like MySpace and Facebook. Obama was also frequently photographed interacting on social media via his Blackberry.
- Obama had 2 million Facebook followers during the 2008 election, compared to John McCain's 600,000. He would go on to win the election with 66% of the Millennial vote and become America's first black president. Only 31% of Millennials voted for John McCain.
We searched trusted media sources, academic journals, and historical archives to find two examples of interesting ways that US presidents since 1960 have used PR to change public opinion. The term "interesting" is subjective, and for the purposes of this research we defined it as the use of PR in a way that captivates, motivates, and ultimately changes audiences. To provide the most robust picture of each president mentioned in this report, we included two sources from 2008 that provide insight into Obama's campaign strategies during that election year.