PR in Focus is a monthly column written by WWPR member Jessica Williams exploring a wide range of topics and current events from a public relations perspective
PR & the Presidency
Public relations can be broadly defined as the “flow of information between an individual or an organization and the public” and the “professional maintenance of a favorable public image by an organization or a famous person.” With the pomp and circumstance of President Barack Obama’s second inauguration now over and as the next term gets underway, the country’s first African American commander-in-chief faces many unenviable challenges over the next four years — one of which is maintaining his high approval rating and public image while moving forward on an ambitious policy agenda.
For a president who ran on the principles of racial inclusion, opportunity and success for all, the bar has been set high. The Obama administration will be challenged to counter the perception that he may be falling back on his pledge to “faithfully execute” and ensure equality for all. He will need to put together a faithful coterie of advisories that is not exclusively made up of white men lest he be accused of “…suffer[ing] from Groucho Marx syndrome: He favors those in the club he doesn’t belong to.” Image is paramount, especially for a president.
In the weeks leading up to the inauguration, as several first term Cabinet members announced their departures, hope for a diverse slate of nominees was soon followed by dismay as a worrisome trend emerged that the second term Cabinet would be far less diverse than the first. With the “big three” posts going to white men in Treasury (Jack Lew), Defense (Chuck Hagel) and State (John Kerry), I know I joined many others in wondering “why”?
Even though Susan Rice removed herself from consideration for Secretary of State after considerable controversy over the American consulate attack in Benghazi, Libya, if confirmed she would have been a female African American nominee and the third consecutive woman to lead the State Department. Still, one had to wonder why there couldn’t be more Cabinet nominees who represent the diversity that is today’s America-one which Obama repeatedly referred to in his inaugural speech and on the campaign trail.
Inaugural Hopes & Dreams
Inauguration rituals are steeped in historical tradition and American ceremonies are no exception. It provides a unique and singular opportunity for the incoming or re-elected president to lay out his (and hopefully a “her” at some point) vision of the country’s future.
What captivated me this time was Obama’s inaugural address that seemed to acknowledge that as our President, Obama needs to connect with the American public in a way like never before while forcefully conveying how he intends to lead the country over the next four years. The bold vision that America “…holds these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” is not new as the President emphasized — it was written in the Declaration of Independence over two hundred years ago.
When the President says, “We are true to our creed when a little girl born into the bleakest poverty knows that she has the same chance to succeed as anybody else, because she is an American; she is free, and she is equal…” we all want to believe that that is true. I know I’m not the only one who hopes that Obama will be true to his words, that by taking the oath of president, he and his administration will “…faithfully execute that pledge during the duration of our service.” As a woman, mother and working professional, these compelling words resonate with me and undoubtedly many others who believe in the same principles and values that Obama campaigned so strongly on.
If Obama’s reassurances in January that his Cabinet and top advisors did indeed include minorities and women, well, the optics left much to be desired. Even Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), when sworn in on January 3 as Hawaii’s first female senator, the country’s first Asian-American and first Buddhist senator, remarked on the glass ceiling in the Senate “…there need to be many more of us in here. I am going to make sure that happens.” Amen.
Obama’s inaugural speech mentioned “equal” or “equality” no less than seven times over the course of 18 minutes. The President’s Cabinet is an exclusive group of public servants who help create policy and inform the president on areas including education, health, transportation, defense, foreign affairs, labor, treasury, interior, agriculture, commerce, health, housing, energy, veteran affairs and homeland security. These 15 top-level officials, not to mention the rest of the White House staff, should be truly representative of the country’s diversity, helping to project a positive image of America to an ever-watchful international community.
Offering some hope that Obama recognizes the need for his administration to comprise women and minorities is the recent announcement of Mary Jo White as nominee to head the Securities and Exchanges Commissions and rumblings that Penny Pritzker will be given the nod for Commerce Secretary. Another welcome nominee would be former Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm as Secretary of Labor, especially after Michigan turned into a right-to-work state under a new Republican governor last fall in a historically pro-labor state and home of the auto industry. May the shuffle of top-level appointments continue to include more high-powered and highly accomplished women and minority nominees-after all, there are plenty of qualified candidates to choose from.
The PR View
Over the next four years, as PR professionals we will watch-and perhaps some will more directly participate in-the administration’s engagement with the American public as it maps out a political agenda that will touch and shape all of our lives. It is also important that we learn when, where and how the Office of the President succeeds, or fails, in its public engagement.
You don’t need to be the White House press secretary to understand the ramifications of speaking “off message” or not using a strategic communications plan. And sometimes, how the President communicates through his actions is a more powerful indication of his thoughts or intentions. Case in point: continuing to nominate women and minorities to high-level posts speaks a thousand words that Obama is committed to improving the diversity of his administration.
Just as we “flacks” (or “communicators” if you prefer) are aware of the need to embrace diversity in all aspects of our work), we must remember that connecting with and remaining attuned to audiences and clients alike is vital to our success as well. “We know these truths to be self-evident…” that good PR is earned and maintained and is not something that anyone-not even the President of the United States-has the luxury of taking for granted.
Jessica Williams is a WWPR member and communications professional at a non-profit organization in Washington, DC. Follow her on Twitter: https://twitter.com/oysterviewpoint
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of Washington Women in Public Relations.