ANALYSIS: 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 rem

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

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

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


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


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


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.’

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