A Case Study by Bill Barlow
How PR Was Used to Start A Nation
Few people recognize that public relations are the oldest and most effective marketing methods. So in
the middle of my 4th
of July weekend I decided to outline how Public Relations efforts changed America
history and highlight some public relations practices still in use today.
Strategic Thinking and Vision
When our founding fathers were at war with Britain why did they bother to issue a document that they
titled the Declaration of Independence? They were at war; they were busy and had to manage their
resources. Why didn’t they simply revolt, succeed or denounce Britain? The truth is that in order to
succeed at executing their vision of transforming the 13 colonies to become an independent state and
eventually become a new country, they needed a lot of support. Wikipedia defines the Declaration of
Independence as follows:
The Declaration of Independence is a statement adopted by the Continental
Congress on July 4, 1776, which announced that the 13 American colonies, then at
war with Great Britain, regarded themselves as independent states, and no longer a
part of the British Empire. Instead they formed a union that would become a new
nation—the United States of America.
As a strategic planner I know that a published “statement” has quite a bit of thought and meaning behind
it. Part of the strategy of developing an effective public relations effort is to articulate specific goals and
the desired outcome. These goals, objectives and statements allow others to execute strategic plans and
making decisions based on what should be done as detailed in the plans and statements.
So the reason for the Declaration of Independence was to lay the foundation for the agenda of the
founding fathers and to give guidance so that supporters had an outline to follow.
Using a Spokesperson
John Adams is the recognized leader in pushing for independence. In June of 1776, he
had already lead congress to form a committee of 5 influential people who had already
drafted the formal declaration, to be ready when congress voted on independence. But
Adams went a step further. John Adams chose a spokesperson, Thomas Jefferson to
officially write the first official draft of Declaration of Independence. His logic? Public
Relations. Adams wanted someone skilled and popular to be the public face of the
document which was a tangible representation of their strategic plan. Here again,
without public support John Adams vision for independence could be in jeopardy.
History records in Adams’ own notes the internal dialog that he had with Thomas Jefferson in his asking
Jefferson to draft the document that would ultimately be presented to the public:
From Adams' notes: "Why will you not? You ought to do it." "I will not." "Why?"
"Reasons enough." "What can be your reasons?" "Reason first, you are a
Virginian, and a Virginian ought to appear at the head of this business. Reason
second, I am obnoxious, suspected, and unpopular. You are very much otherwise.
Reason third, you can write ten times better than I can." "Well," said Jefferson, "if
you are decided, I will do as well as I can." "Very well. When you have drawn it up,
we will have a meeting.""
From a public relations perspective so much can be learned from the paragraph above;
Perception is Power, “you are a Virginian…”
Avoid Conflict and don’t fight uphill battles, “I am obnoxious, suspected, and unpopular. “You are
very much otherwise.”
Leverage your Strengths, “you can write ten times better than I can”
Use Familiar References
We know that Thomas Jefferson is credited the first draft of the Declaration of Independence. Many
people also assume that because he drafted it that the thoughts and statements are largely his. This is
not the case. Historians have often sought to identify the sources that most influenced the words and
political philosophy of the Declaration of Independence. By Jefferson's own admission, the Declaration
contained no original ideas, but was instead a statement of sentiments widely shared by supporters of the
American Revolution. As he explained in 1825:
“Neither aiming at originality of principle or sentiment, nor yet copied from any
particular and previous writing, it was intended to be an expression of the
American mind, and to give to that expression the proper tone and spirit called for
by the occasion.”
Public relations experts have long known that in order to gain the support of people you have to
communicate thoughts and idea that are known and familiar. Finding common ground is the best way to
gain initial support.
Tangible Tools & References
The Declaration served its original purpose in announcing independence and further justified the
independence of the United States by listing colonial grievances against King George III. But the
Declaration was ultimately a formal explanation of why Congress should declare independence from
Great Britain. A Public Relations tool? You bet, there has never been a better one.
Congress voted and was the Declaration of Independence was unanimously approved on July 2 1776. So
why do we celebrate our nations holiday on the 4
of July? The historical reason is that the Declaration of
Independence was ratified on July 4. I can’t help but wonder if our founding fathers were looking for
another public relations opportunity. At that time congressional sessions were private and held behind
closed doors. How would they get the public to embrace the Declaration and ultimately support the
founding fathers? What happened next is nothing short of good public relations in action. History states
that after ratifying the text on July 4, Congress issued the Declaration of Independence in several forms. It
was initially published, widely distributed, read to the public and then put on public display.
But here is some lesser known trivia. When was the Declaration of Independence signed? Even though
the wording of the Declaration was approved on July 4, the date of its signing was August 2, the
document was back dated the document in the ceremony to the date of its ratification, July 4, 1776. I
imagine that the signing ceremony was a spectacular news event and public gathering orchestrated as a
public relations effort. Why do I think this? Because the founding father created a publicity stunt, they
wanted the signing to be memorable. This was accomplished by John Hancock.
Hancock's large, flamboyant signature became iconic, so
much so that John Hancock emerged in the United States as
an informal synonym for "signature”. A commonly circulated
but apocryphal account claims that after Hancock signed, the
delegate from Massachusetts commented, "The British
ministry can read that name without spectacles." Another apocryphal report indicates that Hancock
proudly declared, "There! I guess King George will be able to read that!"
Renewal of Interest
Over time every agenda needs to be refreshed and renewed. By the 1780’s few Americans knew, or
cared, who wrote the Declaration of Independence. But in the next decade, Jeffersonian Republicans
sought political advantage over their rival Federalists by promoting both the importance of the Declaration
and Jefferson as its author. Federalists responded by casting doubt on Jefferson's authorship or
originality, and by emphasizing that independence was declared by the whole Congress, with Jefferson
as just one member of the drafting committee. Federalists insisted that Congress's act of declaring
independence, in which Federalist John Adams had played a major role, was more important than the
document announcing that act. But this view, like the Federalist Party, would fade away, and before long
the act of declaring independence would become synonymous with the document.
Leveraging the principles of the document, which are the core messages of the agenda, ultimately
outweigh the individuals involved. The public relations lesson here is that principles stand the test of time.
Create Memorable Icons
Another powerful public relations tool is to create lasting
icons that represent your purpose or agenda. A powerful
example of this is John Turnbull’s famous painting of the
signing of Declaration of Independence. His oil-on-
canvas work was commissioned in 1817, purchased in
1819, and placed in the rotunda at the Capital Building
in Washington DC in 1826. His painting was also used
on the reverse of the two-dollar bill. Was the use of this
painting on common currency a renewal of interest, a
display of an icon, a tangible reference, the use of
spokes people, or an opportunity to remind the public, on a daily basis, the values set forth by our
founding fathers? Perhaps, yes to all. I would to think of it more a strategic long term vision that has been
realized and proved over time.
In any event, John Turnbull’s painting helps to serve as a constant reminder to the Declaration of
Independence and the principles for which it was written. It has come to symbolize the origin and
formation of the United States as a nation. It is important to note that the signing that was depicted in the
painting happened before the formal creation of America. The United States at that time was nothing
more than 13 colonies made up of immigrants from other countries. The vision and persistence of the
founding fathers together with the support that they created by their public relations efforts literally formed
a great nation.