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PR Lessons from Mr. Smith

Some old movies and books are classics for a reason: their messages are time tested and consistently relevant.

I caught the last 45 minutes of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington yesterday (having always meant to see the whole thing, because I love Jimmy Stewart!) and was instantly taken by his passion, sincerity, and belief that he – a single person – could effect change. In that 45 minutes I observed some fantastic parallels and lessons for PR consultants:

  • To be in PR you must be passionate, creative and – contrary to what our critics might say – have a strong set of principles and convictions.
  • You need near boundless energy.
  • Much like the group of kids who rallied together to print a one-page newspaper to counteract the PR machine of the evil politician determined to take Smith down, grassroots efforts can certainly shift the balance. Even if your company is small you can effect great change by working with a few important clients in a prudent, strategic, and determined manner.
  • Similar to the above, “a single American”, as the movie’s on-the-scene CBS reporter declared, can change the course of a campaign. There are two lessons to learn here: 1) No matter the size of your staff, no matter whether your office is a few hundred feet, one cleverly devised campaign can set your client barreling for notice and success with your firm not far behind. (Think AdBusters and Occupy Wall Street. They describe themselves as “a global network of culture jammers and creatives working to change the way information flows, the way corporations wield power, and the way meaning is produced in our society.” While not a huge, corporate PR firm like Hill & Knowlton, they have managed to affect incredible change.) Lesson #2) This swings the other way as well: there can be one person on the other side of your spectrum who may try to bring your campaign down. Be vigilant with your social media monitoring to keep on top of potential situations, offer dialogue and transparency.
  • A wrong word chosen can make an enormous difference; be careful when formulating your messages. Smith gave some emotional, rallying speeches that if nothing else, certainly got the other senators’ attention and started the thinking wheels a-turning. Same thing in PR: your target audience might not take action immediately, but with the right messages you will help them gather their thoughts, look for more information, and start a dialogue.
  • The grown-ups versus the boys: In the movie there’s Smith and the group of boys he’s brought to Washington with him and then there’s the room full of Senators – thoroughly disgusted with Smith’s filibustering. The difference is the grown-ups (with the exception of greenhorn Smith who has the innocence and naivete of a child) had become complacent. In PR this will never get you far. PR is an elastic profession, not only by nature, but of necessity. Complacency will be the death knell of any campaign or any media response (or I guess it would be more ‘non-response’).
  • How the unscrupulous PR machine can work: yes, for every force there is an equal and opposite force. There is influence and money and power where like the movie’s evil senator, can pick up a phone and with one call change the course of all your hard work. This is particularly true in media relations. However, as long as you help your client remain transparent and take every opportunity presented to get themselves out there you will gain traction, catch up and maybe even surpass the ‘bad’ guy. Slow, steady & strategic wins the race!

The awesome Jimmy Stewart as Mr. Smith

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