On the Assassination of President John F. Kennedy and its effects on public relations

November 22, 2013

On November 1963, the President John F. Kennedy had been president for nearly three years and was on the path to reelection. He was ahead of Barry Goldwater in the polls everywhere but Texas- where everyone from the media to school children questioned the president’s politics. In the first trip Jackie Kennedy made as first lady west of the state of Virginia, people were flocking from all over the state to see the beautiful couple.

But Dallas had its wackos. There was a small sect of ultra conservative residents who were threatening and hateful, but prominent in the Dallas community. They were not only hateful to Kennedy, but his future successor Lyndon B. Johnson and future first lady, Lady Bird Johnson, spitting in their faces, tearing off their clothing and calling them names. Everyone warned the president not to come to Dallas, saying they could win the election anyway.

It has been 50 years since President of the United States of America John Fitzgerald Kennedy was assassinated on Elm St. in Dallas, only five blocks from where I live. In the last 50 years, there have been almost as many conspiracy theories to come out of the aftermath. If they had a better grasp of public relations, perhaps there would be fewer than the dozens of different conspiracy theories that exist today. But more than that, the way officials and the city of Dallas handled the situation led us to be nicknamed the city of hate.

I recently read an interesting article in The New York Times comparing the Sixth Floor Museum and the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston. The nut graph of the article was fascinating, “If the Sixth Floor Museum in Dallas sees the life through the moment of death, the library sees the life as an idyll, as if detached from death. It celebrates the Kennedy years as if they were still with us and still should be.” What’s particularly fascinating is how true the line is with a couple simple replacements, “If Dallas sees the life through the moment of death, the rest of the world sees the life as an idyll, as if detached from death. It celebrates the Kennedy years as if they were still with us and still should be.”

There are lessons for everyone in how the world, particularly Dallas, responded to the assassination. The first lesson comes from the point that everyone wanted to see them riding together in an open top. I’m sure that people would love to have seen the Obamas doing the same thing in November of 2010, however, no president since has cruised will ever cruise in an open limousine.

Kennedy also broke away from his plan and went right up to the fence to shake hands with people on a trip that officials could not seem to persuade him from taking.

One of the reasons so many conspiracy theories came out of the assassination is because Dallas officials were too quick with their words. It’s okay to say that you don’t know something but that you’ll find out.

As the 50th anniversary drew near, I noticed more and more tourists gathering in Dealey Plaza to memorialize JFK. And it wasn’t just a group of historians, people of all ages were visiting the historic street that merges the city center of Dallas and major highways, gathering where the visitors estimated three bullets entered JFKs head, mortally wounding the president.

How does a city, particularly one that has been labeled “the city of hate,” and marks the only modern presidential assassination, go about the fiftieth anniversary of one of the most tragic events Americans older than 50 can remember?

First, they hire Laurey Peat and Associates, a well-known public relations firms in Dallas. If the city is going to memorialize the death of the president assassinated on their streets, they made damn sure it was going to be done correctly and dignified.

The Dallas Morning News played a huge role in this years’ remembrances, though I’m suspicious it’s to right their wrongs of their treatment of JFK to the point that Stanley Marcus of Neiman Marcus said “The News, in my opinion, was almost single-handedly responsible for the prevailing state of mind in Dallas at the time of the assassination.”

The publisher of the Dallas Morning News at the time and Kennedy hater was Ted Dealey, the son of longtime publisher George Bannerman Dealey, for whom Dealey Plaza is named, made sure his sentiments were expressed throughout the paper and at events.  Today, the Morning News sponsored the JFK Symposium, assisting in the funding and promoting of a free documentary and assisting with today’s events- and, of course, doing the story complete justice this past year in different series and installments.

Then they make sure everyone puts on the right spin. Officials assure media that it is not a ploy to help the local economy or the city’s image, but the right thing to do, albeit somber.

They make a beautiful website for people to visit and made sure plenty of credited journalists got in, but not everyone who got a ticket got one. According to the Dallas Morning News, 600 of the 900 media requests were granted. In the media business getting people to attend and cover your event is a big deal, and when the demand is high, you’re onto something.

Even in his remarks today, Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings noted that the assassination has tarnished Dallas forever – but that this is an opportunity to grow.

He did not apologize for what happened in our city 50 years ago, rather embraced it in an empathetic and meaningful way that will resonate with the rest of the world.

For more great articles and analyses of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, Ragan provides a great source of 50 different articles. You also need to watch this free documentary from Hugh Ayensworth, “Eyewitness to History.”