History Shows That Words May Have Consequences, But Action Gets Results. (Op-Ed)

Arthur Solomon, Public Relations Consultant

Ever since Trump took office, an old proverb has been repeated thousands of times: Words have meanings.

A quick look at history books show that words can indeed be a powerful tool for good or evil. Prior to World War II, Adolph Hitler proved that words could inspire evil; today, President Trump’s words do the same. Conversely, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Winston Churchill proved that words can encourage people to do the right thing.

Our current narcissistic, morally bankrupt, demagogic-like president knows that words have meanings. He used them during his successful 2016 campaign. He is still using them, unfortunately in the same manner of so many past demagogues.

The proper uses of words are the most important tool in my working life, first as a journalist, then as a PR practitioner.

Of the millions of words that have been written and spoken during my lifetime, the one that has troubled me the most while on and off the job is “egotistical.”

I’ve spent most of my working life dealing with egotistical personalities who think their words are meaningful but have zero influence on a situation while working with athletes, show biz stars and low and high ranking foreign and U.S. politicians as a media advisor. Of the three groups, I found that the politicians are the easiest to work with. The most difficult were the ‘”star” athletes and actors, probably because ever since they were young children they were fawned upon by their handlers and the media. (Unfortunately, too many of them believe they are special or superior human beings because they can dump a basketball, have a sweet voice or follow stage directions. Not that our business doesn’t have its share of egotists. Our halls are filled with supervisors who think that they know more than those they supervise and practitioners who think they know more than their clients. Too many in our business take their titles too seriously.) 

Nevertheless, despite the standoffish behavior of many athletes, of the three groups, the one that I have the most respect for are the athletes, and not because of their skills. Unlike during the McCarthy era, actors can now speak out on political matters but have little to lose as long as they keep the cash register ringing. Politicians speak out, as least some do (but not those in the current GOP Congress) because that’s what their job entails.

The reason I have the most respect for athletes is because they have the most to lose, and some have had their career cut short because of expressing opinions that upset team owners and leagues. (Although it must be noted that relatively few athletes take a public political stand compared to show business entertainers.) A new exception is Chris Borland, a former NFL linebacker, who has asked the Catholic Church to take a strong stand for gun control and against white supremacy and is trying to get other athletes to join with him.

The racist speech of a racist, White Supremacist president has ignited athletes to again speak out.

On August 8, The New York Times carried a story about the Miami Dolphins receiver Kenny Stills criticizing his National Football League team owner Stephen Ross for hosting an election fund raiser for President Trump. How that will affect his career remains to be seen. (Only in the NFL: The teams in Texas and Ohio contributed money to victims’ funds after the shootings in El Paso and Dayton, but the owner of the Miami franchise hosted a fund raiser for a president whose inflammatory language against people whose skin colors differ than his have brought the worst elements of our society out from under their rocks and hoods into the open.) Since using his First Amendment to the Constitution right to express his opinion, Stills has received death threats.

At football’s recent Hall of Fame ceremonies new inductees Ed Reed and Champ Bailey spoke out about mass shootings, their sorrows and fears. So did Major League Soccer player Alejandro Bedoya, who said after a game, “Before I’m a soccer player, I’m a human being first.”

The NFL and some team owners have punished and threatened players for speaking out about political issues, even though many owners have publicly supported the president. (Personally, when deciding to use a Hall of Flame player for an extensive international sports marketing program, I received a call from a league office (not the NFL) reminding me that the athlete was instrumental in forming a players’ union. I still used the athlete.)

(In 2016, the NFL came down hard on Colin Kaepernick for kneeling peacefully during the playing of the National Anthem to protest police brutality against African-Americans. Since then, all the NFL teams have not found a place on their roster for him. Coincidence? You decide. But if players stand during the playing of the anthem teams find a place for them despite their unsavory off the field actions. History shows that the NFL has only done what’s right for the league, regardless of the damage done to others. For years they said research showing that “big hits” can cause brain damage to its players was the equivalent of junk science, and attempted to destroy the reputations of respected scientific researchers. Other leagues have followed the NFL playbook of canonizing themselves. The National Hockey League still refuses to admit that its player can be concussioned by hard hits. Major League Baseball has a lengthy resume of teams threatening to leave a city unless it pays for a new stadium. Legal blackmail? The so-called major college leagues have never been truly amateur. All were helped for decades by a compliant sports media, some of which still too often acts like the leagues’ or teams’ PR arms. ) 

While some show biz stars have never been afraid to speak out about political matters, and I commend them for doing so, their comments are usually gone with the wind. Entertainers who spoke out shortly after the recent shootings in El Paso and Dayton include John Legend, Julianne Moore, Cardi B, Cher, Jamie Lee Curtis, Bette Midler, Kevin Bacon, Reese Witherspoon, Henry Winkler and Rihanna, to name a few. Lady Gaga, in addition to making a statement, will provide funding for 162 classrooms in Dayton, Ohio; El Paso, Texas and Gilroy, California, scene of the Garlic Festival shootings last month. But in contrast to Lady Gaga, whose comments were followed by action, the great majority of show biz performers’ comments are mere words, nothing more. Political stands by athletes get results because they follow it with action.

  • In 1968, American track stars John Carlos and Tommie Smith raised their fists in what they said was a protest against racism and injustice on the medal stand of the Olympics in Mexico City. They were banned from Olympic participation and vilified by then newspaper columnist Brent Musburger, who called them “black-skinned storm troopers.” Today, the two track stars are considered civil rights heroes.
  • In 1969, St. Louis Cardinals’ all-star centerfielder Curt Flood initiated the path that now gives baseball players free agency, instead of being forced to play for one team indefinitely.
  • But perhaps it was Cassius Clay, who in 1964 provided the loudest black athlete voice against racial injustice by changing his name to Muhammad Ali, saying his former name was his “slave name.”

Carlos, Smith, Flood and Ali were vilified because of their actions, but they changed American society and are now respected.

Never to be forgotten was how a white team owner and a black ballplayer changed history and baseball, on April 15, 1947, when Branch Rickey brought Jackie Robinson to the major leagues as a Brooklyn Dodger. Robinson promised not to respond to racial insults for the season and let his actions on the field do the speaking. Eventually, he became a civil rights activist.

People with a public following who advocate change should learn an important lesson from the above athletes: It’s not what you say, it’s what you do that can bring change.

People in our business who handle show biz stars, sports personalities, brand and corporate executives or politicians should remember that when writing comments or speeches for them the words will soon be forgotten unless they are followed by action.

PR people should remember that we are primarily propaganda merchants. And that our crafted words, spoken by our clients, unless accompanied by action will soon join the ash heap of past words.

Maybe that’s why the first two letters of the word “PRopaganda” are PR.


The Unspoken PR Tenet: Bad News Is Good News for Our Business By Arthur SolomonAbout the Author: Arthur Solomon, a former journalist, was a senior VP/senior counselor at Burson-Marsteller, and was responsible for restructuring, managing and playing key roles in some of the most significant national and international sports and non-sports programs. He also traveled internationally as a media adviser to high-ranking government officials. He now is a frequent contributor to public relations publications, consults on public relations projects and is on the Seoul Peace Prize nominating committee. He can be reached at arthursolomon4pr (at) juno.com or artsolomon4pr@optimum.net.

 

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1 Comment

  1. Hope Kaye on August 14, 2019 at 9:02 am

    Bravo!