As we celebrated Presidents’ Day this year, we also celebrate the lives and accomplishments of our nation’s leaders. Throughout history, we have seen an evolution of public relations approaches utilized by our presidents to address the nation. Here are three important communications lessons from our presidents, past and present:
Abraham Lincoln: The greatest orator of his time, “Honest Abe” provided the nation with numerous unforgettable speeches. Lincoln revolutionized the manner in which presidents addressed the nation. This president knew the value of crafting simple messages that were easy to understand, remember and share. He purposely avoided the ‘highfalutin’ and airy language of other politicians of his time…and won greater appeal as a result. Even when he spoke at considerable length, which he often did, he was easy to understand. Those who attended his speeches were able to spread his message in just a few sentences. We see Lincoln’s influence throughout presidential history, most notably when Ronald Reagan served as president over a century later. Reagan used many of Lincoln’s tactics to communicate with the American public, earning him the title of “The Great Communicator.”
Franklin D. Roosevelt: During FDR’s tenure, over 90 percent of American households owned a radio. Seeing the opportunity mass media provided to communicate directly and intimately with the public, Roosevelt issued a series of 30 radio addresses throughout his presidency. FDR was never actually sitting beside a fireplace, but reporter Harry Butcher of CBS coined the term “fireside chat” in a release before one of Roosevelt’s speeches. The name stuck, as it perfectly evoked the comforting intent behind Roosevelt’s words, as well as their informal, conversational tone. Just as Lincoln did, Roosevelt always used the simplest possible language and analogies so as to be clearly understood by the majority of Americans. He began many chats with the greeting “my friends,” addressing his listeners directly and personally. Through depression and war, the reassuring nature of the fireside chats boosted the public’s confidence and undoubtedly contributed to his unprecedented number of election wins.
Barack Obama: Just as FDR understood the power of his era’s newest form of communication, the radio, Obama appreciates the role digital communication and social media have in our modern world. Obama understands his audience and has always strategically used social media to address the public where they spend the much of their time – online. Beginning with his first campaign and continuing through his present term, Obama and his administration connect and engage directly with the American people via social media. With his ever-evolving media strategy, Obama disseminates controlled messages to Americans across demographics.
If we learn one PR lesson from our nation’s greatest communicators, it is to deliver a genuine, easy-to-understand message to your audience, through the medium on which they are most likely to consume it.