History of PR

How one bullet felled a president and a city  

            President Kennedy’s visit to Dallas could have been a PR triumph for a city struggling to improve its tarnished image, but the shots that rang out that day cast a pall that remained for decades. Sherri Deatherage Green speaks to the woman who handled PR for the city at that time. 

Dallas knew it had an image problem before President John F. Kennedy’s fateful visit on Nov. 22, 1963 .

By the early 1960s, the city’s pillars of industry began losing control of the unlikely metropolis they had molded on the North Texas prairie. Bucking the one-party Southern political tradition, Dallas elected Republican Bruce Alger to Congress in 1952. Alger — a tall, handsome, charismatic man — attracted a devoted following of well-to-do housewives who latched onto his ultraconservative ideology. “They knew just enough ...to be completely intolerant of any other point of view,” Neiman Marcus heir Stanley Marcus, then one of the city’s few vocal liberals, observed in a 1995 oral history for the Dallas County Historical Society.

The always-conservative Dallas Morning News took a hard swing to the right, and factions like the Birch Society and the National Indignation Society flocked to the city, according to Warren Leslie’s 1964 book “Dallas Public and Private.” Radical military retiree Maj. Gen. Edwin Walker chose Dallas as his home base. In 1960, a downtown mob jeered and spat upon Senator Lyndon Johnson. United Nations Ambassador Adlai Stevenson received similar treatment during a UN visit in October 1963. 

Early warning

Some warned Kennedy against coming, fearing the extreme minority. But the need for Texas votes outweighed any concerns. Dallasites saw Kennedy’s visit as an opportunity to polish their tarnished national image.

Those who pulled the strings in Dallas belonged to the Citizens Council, a group of businessmen with the authority to commit their company’s resources to various projects. When the Citizens Council needed PR help, they turned to Sam Bloom of the Bloom Advertising Agency.

Helen Holmes directed the agency’s PR division in 1963. In the three weeks prior to Kennedy’s trip, Holmes tried to convince Dallas citizens to put aside politics and embrace the president. A string of leaders issued statements encouraging tolerance and warmth. Sheriff William Decker was featured last, stressing that civil unrest would be dealt with sternly.

City leaders suggested education as a safe banner for Kennedy to wave, and Bloom hoped the first lady’s style would subdue radical but fashion-conscious women. Holmes coordinated all the necessary media relations mechanics.

The efforts appeared to pay off. Only a few detractors displayed negative signs when Kennedy arrived and hundreds shook the president’s hand over a chain-link fence. “There were people who I'm sure wouldn’t vote for him who were out there waving flags, standing 20 deep,” she recalls. “We really felt like we had reached the real Dallas .”

Ironically, the man who gave Dallas its unfortunate “City of Hate ” label embraced extreme left-wing politics. Not only was Lee Harvey Oswald a card-carrying member of the Fair Play for Cuba Committee, but subsequent investigations linked him to an unsolved attempt on Walker’s life, according to displays in the Sixth Floor Museum, which now occupies part of the Texas School Book Depository.

Kennedy’s assassination elicited “visceral PR” instincts within Holmes, she says. Holmes interpreted the gunshots as firecracker pops. Later, she couldn’t bring herself to repeat that the president had been shot in the head. “I could not have this happen,” she says.

Back at the Trade Mart, where more than 2,500 Dallasites had expected to lunch with the Kennedys, Citizens Council president Erik Jonsson and leaders of other host organizations drafted an empathetic statement that Holmes hand delivered to the local media. For days, weeks, even years, city leaders pondered how to salvage Dallas ’ image.

“The ideas varied ... from establishing scholarships to employing a PR firm,” Marcus told researchers. “The point that I made was that the best PR was what you did, not what you talked about.” Yet Marcus published a newspaper advertisement around New Year's Day titled “What’s Right With Dallas,” which highlighted the city’s strong points and called for an end to absolutism.

But the damage was too deep to repair, especially after Jack Ruby murdered Oswald. “ Dallas drew into itself, stunned to find that we weren’t going to be allowed to grieve with the rest of country,” Holmes says. Perhaps because the nation already held an extremist perception of Dallas , or because of the nonstop live TV coverage, outsiders would focus intense blame on the city.

Criminal proceedings against Ruby kept the international media lens focused on Dallas . In an unusual and some believe unprecedented move, Bloom volunteered the services of his agency to presiding Judge Joe Brown. Reporters criticized the arrangement, and Ruby’s flamboyant attorney, Melvin Belli, loudly attacked it. Pushing for a change of venue, Belli claimed Bloom would handpick reporters who would present Dallas favorably. On appeal, Ruby was granted a new trial and change of venue, but he died in prison before being retried.

Holmes’ involvement was low-key but crucial. She set up a credential system and pressroom for reporters and subtly gave media relations counsel to the judge. City leaders wanted the trial confined to Brown’s 60-seat courtroom, but Holmes successfully lobbied for a larger one. “I wanted them in the courtroom working and not out looking under the boards for another way to trash Dallas .”

Despite early skepticism, the Bloom Agency earned kudos for its work, while the media turned a critical eye on itself. Against Holmes’ advice, Brown agreed to allow cameras into the courtroom for the final sentencing verdict. Network TV reporters practically rushed the bench, and Belli shouted his disdain for Dallas

JR and the Cowboys

            Ultimately, a strong football team and a popular TV series would pull Dallas ’ image out of the gutter. Sixth Floor Museum communications director Bob Porter said he noticed the turn in the early 1980s when, while in Europe , someone asked him if he knew the fictional Ewing family from the TV show Dallas .

Holmes, now retired and working on a PR mystery novel, also did what she could in the ’80s to boost Dallas ’ reputation. Her own PR agency worked on the 1984 Republican National Convention in Dallas . She realized most national news organizations planned to play up the 20th anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination. So, she teamed with Clyde Hopkins to put out a fact book on Dallas a year early. Holmes advised Dallasites not to be defensive. Response by visiting journalists was overwhelmingly positive, she recalls.

Today, the world generally has absolved Dallas . Subsequent tragedies have brought home the point that violence can happen anywhere.

“Gradually, people began to accept the fact that someone shot the president, but it wasn’t Dallas that pulled the trigger,” Holmes says. “It took a long time.” 

(c) Haymarket PR Publications Ltd. Published in the Nov. 22, 1999, U.S. edition of PRWeek. 

 

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