There are many activities that we always associate with politicians, and presidents in particular: launching broad campaigns to accomplish a major policy priority (think the Affordable Care Act, or more recently, “The Wall”), traveling around the country to shore up support for certain legislation, utilizing news conferences and the latest technology to reach as many citizens as possible and answer the questions of the day, and more.
But as fact has it, these things weren’t always a part of president’s plans and routines.
While Theodore Roosevelt was most well-known for his conservation efforts, strong foreign policy, being a part of the “Rough Riders” group in the Spanish-American War, and being the youngest U.S. to be elected at the time, it’s less that Roosevelt pioneered the intersection of public relations and politics.
Let’s take a look at some of the ways Roosevelt was revolutionary as a PR-friendly politician.
Roosevelt’s ascent to the presidency was heavily lifted by various PR-related arts.
During Roosevelt’s time as the president of the New York City police board, he started to fully grasp the potential of the press in helping his agendas, both personal and political. He’d invite them out on his midnight rides through the sketchier parts of the city, catching corrupt patrolmen in unsavory or unethical acts. One report of these press-friendly jaunts read, “Sing, heavenly Muse, the sad dejection of our poor policemen. We have a real Police Commissioner. His name is Theodore Roosevelt. His teeth are big and white, his eyes are small and piercing, his voice is rasping. He makes our policemen feel as the little froggies did when the stork came out to rule them.”
He went on to win the governorship in New York on the strength of his history with the “Rough Riders,” his volunteer cavalry from the Spanish-American War, which Roosevelt and his team played up and exploited to help bolster his image. From there he vaulted into the vice presidency and, following the murder of William McKinley, the presidency.
Roosevelt decided it was worth upgrading the White House’s press room to better suit the needs of journalists. This, for a politician, was certainly ahead of its time; making sure journalists are comfortable and equipped with the space and tools they need to get the right story done remains a priority for PR pros today.
To help make them more comfortable and to further signal how seriously he was taking the PR side of his presidency, Roosevelt hired the first government press officers. These roles are now just as common as a Cabinet secretary, with each administration stacked with various press secretaries and communication officials.
Roosevelt began hosting informal press conferences during “spontaneous” events, such as his afternoon shave, providing journalists with the transparency that journalists crave, even if the events are more planned-out than suggested. This practice continues for leaders of all types; think the “Sunday Morning Routine” or “24 Hours With…”-type pieces that often run on CEOs, politicians or celebrities.
One of the most important words in public relations is relationships, and that certainly applies to the world of politics as well. While it may seem natural now, President Roosevelt was groundbreaking in his relationships with reporters.
Roosevelt’s advancements in the form of spin and public relations weren’t entirely what one would consider successful. One French writer whom Roosevelt made a point to impress in one of his gatherings with journalists (or “seances”) came out of the meeting with a record of Roosevelt’s revealing remarks. They made their way to the press shortly after, and Roosevelt denied having even spoken to the writer, which was likely a little bit easier to pull off before the days of social media, camera phones and 24-hour cable news.
Later, he clarified in a uniquely Roosevelt-ian manner: “Of course I said it, but I said it as Theodore Roosevelt and not as the President of the United States!”
It is now expected for presidents to tour the country to promote key legislation that they are favoring, but this was not always the case.
Roosevelt decided that to make advances in his legislative agenda, he needed to actually take it to the people as much as possible to help put pressure on other politicians. One campaign of note found him riding nearly 100 miles on horseback to prove how reasonable the new Army regulations wore, and another featured him descending to the lowest depths of the Long Island Sound via submarine to signal his support for these new types of vessels.
Roosevelt’s efforts focused on conservation of the country’s public lands – with many public events and far-away travels – led Glen Broom to write, in his book Effective Public Relations, that Roosevelt’s “conservation policies, effectively promoted by Gifford Pinchot, in the governments’ first large-scale publicity program, saved much of America’s resources from gross exploitation.”
PR pros know that to advance an agenda, creating an event – or a “stunt,” to put it crudely – can really drive home the importance of a business or legislative priority.
One of the most well-known examples of Roosevelt leveraging all of his PR tools on a legislative priority was to clean up the practices of the meatpacking industry, its sketchy facilities in particular. Roosevelt utilized secret leaks, his personal relationships with journalists and a number of public events aimed at drawing national attention to the industry.
Thanks to Roosevelt’s efforts, Congress passed the Meat Inspection Act of 1906, which banned misleading labels and preservatives that contained harmful chemicals, and the Pure Food and Drug Act, which banned impure or falsely labeled food and drugs from being made, sold, and distributed.
Upton Sinclair, whose landmark novel The Jungle is most closely associated with this topic and Roosevelt previously described as a “crackpot,” praised Roosevelt after the president took these actions to significantly reshape the industry: “He took the matter up with vigor and determination, and he has given it his immediate and personal attention from the very beginning.”
“Vigor and determination” and “immediate and personal attention” should be words for public relations professionals to live by, and despite any policy or political disagreements with the man, Theodore Roosevelt certainly can be credited for forging a direct link between the worlds of politics and PR.