THE POWER OF PR ANALYSIS: Public Affairs - The war on poverty - a fight PR hasn’t won. PR helped to highlight the plight of America’s poor, but it has been an uphill battle. Steve Lilienthal analyzes PR’s effectiveness in war on po

The leading role of PR in the government’s war on poverty became clear once again last month when President Clinton promoted greater economic development in impoverished areas. ’There’s really a lot I can do with just my bully pulpit,’ he told USA Today. But history proves that PR’s effectiveness in helping to combat poverty has been mixed.

The leading role of PR in the government’s war on poverty became clear once again last month when President Clinton promoted greater economic development in impoverished areas. ’There’s really a lot I can do with just my bully pulpit,’ he told USA Today. But history proves that PR’s effectiveness in helping to combat poverty has been mixed.

The leading role of PR in the government’s war on poverty became

clear once again last month when President Clinton promoted greater

economic development in impoverished areas. ’There’s really a lot I can

do with just my bully pulpit,’ he told USA Today. But history proves

that PR’s effectiveness in helping to combat poverty has been mixed.



When President Herbert Hoover appeared uncaring to the millions of

Americans whose economic fortunes had been diminished by the Great

Depression, the country selected not just a new president - Franklin

Roosevelt - but also a bolder, more activist philosophy. FDR sponsored

new ’alphabet agencies’ to provide relief. And those new agencies meant

more PR. James McCamy explained in his book Government Publicity: ’There

is no doubt ... that the Roosevelt administration has expanded the

publicity function in the same way that it has expanded most federal

functions.’



Depression documentation



One noteworthy New Deal PR effort was spearheaded by Roy Stryker, who

commissioned photographs for the Farm Security Association (FSA) from

renowned photographers Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans and Gordon

Parks.



The book Documenting America, edited by Carl Fleischhauer and Beverly

Brannan, says the photographers’ images of poverty were often used in

feature sections in agency publications, newspapers and magazines,

’juxtaposed with photographs of newly constructed government housing or

the like - pictures that displayed the positive results of ... FSA

programs.’ As photographer Arthur Rothstein recalls: ’It was our job to

document the problems of the Depression so that we could justify the New

Deal legislation that was designed to alleviate them.’



The New Deal provided relief, but it was World War II that helped revive

the American economy. And the impact of the photographs as PR tools to

develop support for policy is questionable. By the late 1930s, the

political climate had changed, threatening support for many New Deal

programs.



Columbia University historian Dr. Alan Brinkley says, ’If the

photographs had an impact on policy, it was much more subtle and much

later.’



After the war, the country regained its prosperity. However, deep

pockets of poverty remained in rural areas such as Appalachia and in

sections of urban areas, but as Michael Harrington writes in The Other

America much of the poor remained invisible: ’They are without lobbies

of their own ... They have no face; they have no voice.’



LBJ’s war on poverty



Underlying concern about poverty in the affluent 1960s led President

Lyndon Johnson to declare an ’unconditional war on poverty.’ Sargent

Shriver, head of the Peace Corps, directed the newly created Office of

Economic Opportunity (OEO), which administered programs such as Head

Start and Job Corps that provided poorer Americans with the assistance

and skills to do better in life.



Writing about the OEO in 1966 for Columbia Journalism Review,

journalists Erwin Knoll and Jules Witcover asserted that ’not since New

Deal days has Washington seen a coordinated hard-sell for a relatively

small program to match OEO’s merchandising of the effort to combat

poverty.’ OEO’s public affairs department issued a regular news summary,

a monthly magazine and produced recruiting and training films for its

programs. Many journalists were unprepared to cover the poverty beat, so

the office organized seminars for reporters to come learn about the ’War

on Poverty’ programs. And OEO public affairs director Herbert Kramer ,

formerly VP of public information and advertising at Travelers Insurance

Company, set up the department along the lines of a corporate

communications office.



However, the big PR buildup behind the launch of the war on poverty may

have been counterproductive. Shriver, midway through his tenure at OEO,

reflected on the disparity between PR and fighting poverty in a speech

to the PRSA: ’If PR is putting one’s best foot forward, the war on

poverty is the precise opposite. We are constantly revealing this

nation’s worst foot, forcing it into the public consciousness, calling

attention to the fact that it is ugly, clumsy and clubbed.’



In an interview with the LBJ Library, Kramer recalled that the agency

’was under constant scrutiny, constant attack, constant vilification.’

Suddenly, those who had been ’hidden’ in poverty were ’coming up to the

surface, and America wasn’t liking everything it was seeing about them.’

Friction between OEO, Congress and local political officials occurred

quite often as the agency’s operations became enmeshed in

controversies.



As Shriver told the PRSA, ’If two (Job Corps) enrollees get into a fight

the headlines read ’Riot in Job Corps Camp.’ ’



OEO’s support diminished due to the bad PR and as another war, Vietnam,

captured most of Johnson’s attention. Yet Kramer said many favorable

editorials appeared in 1967 when a more conservative Congress posed a

threat to OEO’s future.



Some said OEO, in fact, had its own ’credibility gap.’ CJR’s Knoll and

Witcover concluded that ’OEO’s publicity drive has made the program seem

far larger than it is - and inevitably the failures that are brought to

light also loom larger than life.’ Kramer told his interviewer that OEO

had less than adequate funding to carry out its mission, insisting that

he had tried to present a more realistic accounting of its goals to the

news media.



Great Society backlash



Shriver left OEO in 1968; by then, tensions generated by racial unrest

and the Vietnam War had created a backlash to LBJ’s Great Society.

President Nixon tried killing OEO; President Ford succeeded in

terminating OEO as an administrative entity. But like-minded programs,

such as Head Start and AmeriCorps VISTA, still survive today.



PR succeeded in awakening the American public to poverty, particularly

in the mid-1960s when the country’s prosperity could easily obscure its

lingering, detrimental existence. That concern still exists today, as

both parties’ presidential candidates are discussing ways to help the

less fortunate. But LBJ’s ’unconditional’ war on poverty never

materialized despite the PR buildup, and even Kramer doubted that

’anybody really knew how difficult it was going to be to eliminate

poverty.’ PR, to be effective and credible, must promote realistic

goals. Ideally, Bill Clinton and his successors will recognize that when

using PR to help mobilize support for continuing the fight.



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