For the 25th episode of the Journalism History podcast, host Teri Finneman spoke with Pam Parry about how President Dwight D. Eisenhower embraced public relations as a necessary component of American democracy and advanced the profession at a key moment in its history.
Chair of the Department of Media at Southeast Missouri State, Parry is the author of Eisenhower: The Public Relations President.
This episode is sponsored by the Department of Mass Media at Southeast Missouri State University.
Teri Finneman [00:00:10] Welcome to Journalism History, a podcast that rips out the pages of your history books to reexamine the stories you thought you knew and the ones you were never told. I’m your host, Teri Finneman, guiding you through our own drafts of history.
[00:00:24] This episode is sponsored by the Department of Mass Media at Southeast Missouri State University in Cape Girardeau. Southeast prepares students to lead, influence, and craft Media Communications in an increasingly diverse and global media environment. One of two accredited programs in Missouri, Southeast has emphasized student centered and experiential learning for 35 years.
[00:00:50] In the 1950s, public relations practitioners tried to garner respectability for their fledgling profession and one international figure helped in that endeavor. President Dwight D. Eisenhower embraced public relations as a necessary component of American democracy, advancing the profession at a key moment in its history. In today’s episode, we visit with Pam Parry of Southeast Missouri State University about her book, Eisenhower: The Public Relations President.
[00:01:21] Pam, welcome to the show. How did you become interested in studying Dwight Eisenhower in the first place?
Pam Parry [00:01:28] Well, when I was a kid, both of my parents were consumers of news and liked politics so it was a part of our dinner table conversation. My mom even campaigned for Barry Goldwater in the 1960s. Then when I became a reporter, for four and a half years I covered Congress, the Supreme Court, and the White House and I became even a little more interested in the presidency. Then when I went to do my doctorate at the University of Southern Miss, I wanted to do my dissertation on a woman named Anne Williams Wheaton, who was the first associate press secretary to a sitting president. Well, when I began to study her, I learned a lot more about her boss Dwight Eisenhower and found out not only was he a very interesting public relations subject but that not much had been written about it.
Teri Finneman [00:02:19] So, your book is Dwight Eisenhower: the Public Relations President. Before we delve into Eisenhower specifically, what was the state of public relations in the 1950s?
Pam Parry [00:02:29] Well, the 1950s public relations was working hard to gain legitimacy. Since the beginning of time, people had cared about their image and cared about communication, but public relations as we understand it today was really an American invention. At the end of the 19th, beginning of the 20th century and in its beginnings in the early 20th century, there were a lot of good practitioners but there were some questionable practitioners. And so it was all across the board. And so PR practitioners were trying to become more credible. And you see organizations like the Public Relations Society of America cropping up and at this time when this fledgling profession is trying to become more professional, more respected, you have the head of the free world embracing public relations and media advisers. And he did a lot to advance the field for which he hasn’t received a lot of credit.
Teri Finneman [00:03:26] So, let’s talk about how Eisenhower used public relations and how he worked with reporters when he was a general during World War II.
[00:03:34] Eisenhower liked reporters, that’s a really important thing to understand. I think he sort of at one point even contemplated being one when he lived in Abilene, Kansas. I don’t think it was a real thing. It was just more he was curious about it. In World War II, he saw the press as a vital part of the war effort and he included the press as a part of his headquarters. He embraced them. He had press conferences and he did several things that were really quite unique and show his genius. For instance, when the war was over and they entered the concentration camps and they saw the atrocities, Ike almost instantaneously said, ‘Call the photographers, call the reporters, because someday someone is going to deny that this happened.’
So, they documented the concentration camps and just in that little thing where he called them in, you see the glimpse of his prescience. He got it and he was right. People today, some people are trying to deny the Holocaust ever happened. He also took reporters sometimes into his confidence. I interviewed his granddaughter, Mary Jean Eisenhower, for the book and she said there was one time when reporters were kind of asking him to tell them more and he finally said, ‘Well, this is a military action we’re going to take, but you can’t report it because I just want you to know ahead of time. Now you live with the secret.’ And shockingly none of them divulged it, it didn’t leak, and I don’t think he could do that today probably, but he really respected the press. And after the war he gave a speech in which he said that he thought press coverage helped expedite the end of the war because it kept Americans involved and engaged in what was going on. And he was a big believer in public support.
Teri Finneman [00:05:31] Since you mentioned interviewing his granddaughter, talk to us about how difficult was it to get an interview with a member of a presidential family.
Pam Parry [00:05:39] Well, it was easier than I thought, but I think that has more to do with Mary Jean Eisenhower. She was just so gracious. So, I was on my way to the Eisenhower library to do research and I simply emailed her and I said, ‘I will be coming through Kansas City,’ which is where she lived, and I said, ‘I would really like to interview you for this book.’ And she agreed to it, so I stopped by her offices and she gave me a substantial interview, it was over 30 minutes, and then she graciously wrote the foreword to the book. And so I think that’s unusual though. I don’t think you just happen upon members of a presidential family. But she was incredibly gracious to me to let me interview her and then later to write the foreword.
Teri Finneman [00:06:21] Some may find it ironic to declare Eisenhower as the public relations President, especially when he’s often overshadowed by Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy, who of course are well-known for their effectiveness in public relations. So, talk more about why Eisenhower stands out as the public relations president.
Pam Parry [00:06:46] Absolutely. As a matter of fact, I think it’s more than ironic. Most people, when I encounter them and they know about the book and haven’t read it, they kind of scoff at the title, PR president, and then if they do read it, they say, ‘you make a pretty good compelling argument here.’ So, he does get overlooked by several people.
FDR was great with his radio fireside chats and he was a great orator and JFK was what I like to call the press whisperer. He was great with the press corps and he was great with speeches. Eisenhower wasn’t good at public speeches. He found it awkward and he often cursed the teleprompter, which was a relatively new invention at the time, but his speeches were prescient. His final speech where he talked about the military industrial complex still stands as one of the best speeches in presidential history. Now, the reason he is underrated is those things I’ve just said. But he deserves recognition because not so much that he’s the best practitioner of PR, but I think he did the most for the field of public relations as president. I’ll give you an example. This is the most important thing he did. He put the presidential press conference on the record and on television. And Sarah McClendon, who is a reporter who wrote a memoir, said actually that Dwight Eisenhower should be given credit for inventing the modern presidential press conference. And people don’t know that the presidential press conference prior to Eisenhower existed, but if you wanted to quote the president you had to get permission. You weren’t allowed to quote the president just because he said something.
[00:08:33] And his press secretary James Hagerty encouraged Ike to put the press conference on the record. And during his administration, his transcripts of his news conferences were printed in newspapers. And that was a first, that you had a transcript of a presidential press conference. There may have been some here or there, like I think some press conferences may have been put on the record here or there, like I think Truman maybe put one. But in terms of having them as a regular thing, it was Eisenhower, and bringing the television camera means that the American people can see the exchange, so that one thing changed the relationship to the press and the president, and the American people were the benefactors.
Teri Finneman [00:09:23] So, you mentioned television. Talk more about his importance in television history.
Pam Parry [00:09:28] Well, when Eisenhower decided to put the press conference on the record and invite broadcast journalism in, this in the 1950s is a time when print journalism is still key, newspapers and New York Times, they were more powerful than broadcast journalism. And over time, over the period of time of his presidency, he helped elevate the field and broadcast journalism became more powerful. As a matter of fact, Eisenhower was given an honorary Emmy for making this very difference in the field of television journalism. He also changed the way presidents campaign by doing different things with television in his campaigns. In 1952, he was the first president to appear in spot advertising on television. The presidential campaigns and candidates at this time kind of frowned upon that because they didn’t want to sell the president as a bar of soap. And Eisenhower even didn’t like it himself but his media advisers, his PR advisers, said, ‘You need to do this.’ And he listened. He was a good client, which is unusual even today. And so he did these spot ads. And did they make a difference in the campaign? Probably not because Eisenhower after the war I think would have won almost any campaign. But it did change the way future candidates campaign and now spot ads are just a part of how we do business.
[00:11:02] And in 1955 he had a heart attack. So, when he ran for re-election in 1956 he literally did not have the strength to run a traditional campaign so he ran most of his campaign on television. He would produce these events that really were almost infomercials by today’s standards but they passed them off as news. He used that and then his surrogates would travel about and he did some campaigning but not the length that you would and he primarily was able to get re-elected because of the power of television.
Teri Finneman [00:11:39] It’s interesting because we tend to have this collective memory that the 1950s were this idyllic time in American history, when in reality, as you note in your book introduction, Eisenhower was dealing with McCarthyism, the Korean War, school desegregation, and the threat of nuclear war. What are some examples of how he used public relations strategies effectively for dealing with these major issues?
Pam Parry [00:12:05] Well, some of the things that he did is he believed in dealing with some things sort of behind the scenes. There’s a history of the public relations field by Scott Cutlip that talks about the unseen power of public relations. And so Eisenhower did a lot of unseen things to move and make changes. For instance, a lot of people criticized him for not being as strong on Brown v. Board of Education and wanting to desegregate the schools. But he did a lot behind the scenes to help bring about desegregation in the city of Washington with movie theaters and with different restaurants in town and things like that. And so he did a lot of things kind of behind the scenes communicating and that was very powerful.
He did the same thing with McCarthy. There’s a lot who have criticized his approach to McCarthy, but Eisenhower didn’t like to directly criticize people in public. He didn’t like that. But he did a lot of things behind the scenes to try to deal with McCarthy. And he also had an interesting strategy with his press conferences. His Secretary of State was John Foster Dulles and John Foster Dulles would hold his press conferences on one day of the week and then Eisenhower would do them afterwards. And so sometimes when the press would ask Ike about matters of state and foreign things sometimes he could just say, ‘Well, I’m going to point you to what John Foster Dulles just said.’ And so they actually coordinated back and forth their press conferences and what they were going to say.
Teri Finneman [00:13:51] So, going off of that, you mentioned Eisenhower’s Press Secretary James Hagerty earlier. In your book, you called him the most influential press secretary in American history. Tell us what you mean by that and more about who he was.
Pam Parry [00:14:04] OK. James Hagerty was a New York Times reporter who had been the press secretary for Eisenhower’s campaign. At that time, they didn’t really know each other very well. I also interviewed James Hagerty’s son Roger, and Roger said that his dad became very powerful in the Eisenhower administration simply through his competency. Eisenhower was a man that if you showed him you knew what you were talking about, he would have great faith in you. So, Hagerty developed a great deal of trust with Eisenhower and one of the reasons, he was influential for many reasons, one was he was there the whole administration. He was there for eight years and the stress of that, the pressure of that, a lot of press secretaries don’t make it for eight years.
[00:14:50] So, he was there the whole time Eisenhower was there. He also becomes one of Eisenhower’s closest advisers in the second term because John Foster Dulles dies and Sherman Adams, his chief of staff, resigns. And so at this point later in the administration Hagerty isn’t just the mouthpiece. Hagerty is an adviser and that’s quite unusual, particularly today. Post-Watergate, we see a lot of press secretaries who are kind of kept out of the inner circles so that they don’t have to lie about things, so they have plausible deniability. Hagerty was in the middle of everything. One interesting anecdote, when Eisenhower had his heart attack in 1955, he spends several weeks in the hospital in Denver because he was on vacation when he had his heart attack and Hagerty sort of takes control and needs to let the American people know that the president is still running the country. And so people would fly to Denver and meet with Ike in his hospital room and then Hagerty would have them make a statement. Hagerty would have Ike sign a bill and then release a statement.
[00:16:12] So, it looked like the president was working and I’m not suggesting he wasn’t, he wasn’t in a coma or something like that. But Ike was pretty sick and had really did a lot with his public relations prowess to convey confidence to the world because at that time we didn’t know a lot about heart disease. In fact, in some of my research, contemporary articles raised the question, was Hagerty actually running the country during those weeks? And if I ever get time and energy I would like to write a book on Hagerty and explore that question further.
Teri Finneman [00:16:46] Oh, that’s cool. So, you’ve talked about this a little bit before, but how do you see the Eisenhower administration’s public relations contributions impacting the presidency and democracy in current times?
Pam Parry [00:16:58] I think it did a great deal to encourage democracy in part because the American people get to see the presidency at work. And one thing I have to say is that the presidential press conference was not live under Eisenhower, they taped it, and then they even closely monitored and released the tapes for their journalists to use. So, it wasn’t ideal yet. There was still some control of it, but it was a first step.
[00:17:30] JFK actually has live news conferences, but the very fact that the American people could see the fourth estate and the executive branch interact is just remarkable. Eisenhower also advances women in the 1950s at a time when it wasn’t done through Anne Williams Wheaton, who was the first woman to be an associate press secretary for a sitting U.S. president. And when Hagerty is out of the country or gone a couple times, she’s the acting press secretary. And that was quite remarkable, contemporary press reports lauded that, one of them even called it a shot heard round the world when she was sworn in in 1957. So, I think he advanced women, which advanced American society. He also did a couple of other things I thought was really significant. He created the U.S. Information Agency, which was a freestanding federal agency for basically public relations to the world. During that period of time, it was the United States trying to win the Cold War. And Eisenhower believed that he could win the Cold War with communication and he thought if we had enough communication we could win the debate as to whether democracy or communism should rule. And then you wouldn’t even have to have gunfire and the U.S. Information Agency lasted for 40 years. It was rolled back into the State Department under the Clinton administration when it’s perceived the Cold War is over, but that 40-year federal agency devoted to public relations I think makes him the public relations president.
[00:19:17] One other thing I’d like to mention and then I’ll stop, is when he was Army chief of staff in 1946, he authorized the creation of the U.S. Army Information School. So, at the end of World War II, they decided they wanted their information officers to be better trained in journalism and public relations, and Eisenhower authorized the creation of a school. So, he was obsessed with public relations. Scholar Craig Allen wrote a book and he said that Eisenhower had a public relations state of mind. In his book At Ease, Eisenhower said that public relations, if properly practiced, was foundation to American democracy.
Teri Finneman [00:20:11] So, you mentioned Eisenhower and gender. I know you’re looking at doing another book project related to that. Tell us more about it.
Pam Parry [00:20:18] Well, with any luck the book will be published later this year or early next year and another little known part of Eisenhower’s legacy is how he advanced women. Here’s Eisenhower, he’s born in 1890, and he in the 1950s appoints women to federal offices. He has a cabinet secretary.
[00:20:44] He wasn’t the first because FDR had the first, but he had the second. He also appoints a woman as an ambassador. He appoints a woman as U.S. treasurer, a woman to head the Denver Mint, the women in the White House press office, and he has several undersecretaries, representatives to the UN. Eisenhower once said, ‘Show me a capable woman and I’ll give her a job.’ And he made good on that because that’s exactly what he did.
[00:21:14] He believed that women went into public office or public service because they cared about the security of the world. They cared about making the place better. Whereas sometimes men go into public office as a career move. And I don’t know if I entirely buy that but he certainly thought that women had a contribution to make. And if I could say one other thing not when he was president, but when he was Army Chief of Staff after the war, he actually testified before Congress asking Congress to pass a bill making women a permanent part of the military.
Teri Finneman [00:21:52] You were selected to serve on the historians review board of the Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum in Kansas. Tell us about the work you’re doing with the museum.
Pam Parry [00:22:02] Well, my work has wrapped up recently but I was one of a few folks who gave some consultation to the museum. The museum is reopening and what it wanted to do was sort of update the exhibits. And what I did was they sent me via email sample language of the exhibits and what they wanted and I gave feedback about what I thought of different things. And a matter of fact, one of the things I thought they should include was that Ike did argue for women in the military and I’m hoping that that makes the display. So, we gave feedback and sometimes we added language and pointed out things we thought they should include. And then the staff of the library took our input and there were other people giving input too. And then I think they sent it back to us again and we had another opportunity. And so one of the things I did was I simply checked facts, made sure things looked right, and then offered my ideas of some things that might be missing that needed to be added to the displays.
Teri Finneman [00:23:10] You noted in a prior interview that after the changes at the museum, visitors can expect “a remarkable modern retelling of the Eisenhower story.” What do you mean by that?
Pam Parry [00:23:21] Well, there’s two things. One, since the time the museum had its exhibits before, there’s been a change in technology and a change in the Eisenhower historiography. So, there’s gonna be some interactive components of the museum that are gonna be really nice that will allow visitors to engage with exhibits. Also, in the last 20-plus years there’s been a re-estimation of Dwight David Eisenhower. Matter of fact, they annually seem to ask historians, how do you rank the presidents and some of the recent rankings have him as high as the fifth best president in American history and thirty years ago or so that would not have been what people thought. There have been some very significant books written about him and so I think people are going to learn things like that he advanced women in the military and that he did some things for civil rights he hasn’t gotten credit for and so there’s some new research that will be explored in the exhibits.
Teri Finneman [00:24:32] Our final question of the show: Why does journalism history matter?
Pam Parry [00:24:36] Journalism history matters because it’s the history of America. If you go back to colonial times before we were a country, it was newspapers who led the rallying cry, ‘No taxation without representation.’ And when we founded our nation, it was free expression, free speech, freedom of the press. Those were our founding principles or among them. And so it is so important to understand journalism history because it’s wrapped up in the history of who we are as a people. In the First Amendment, the first five freedoms protected include the press. And then if you go throughout our history, the time of the Civil War, there’s a great remaking of journalism during this period and how the country changes, journalism changes. And you go through every significant moment in our country’s history and journalism is right there making a difference shaping and reflecting our nation.
Teri Finneman [00:25:38] OK. Well, thanks so much for joining us today.
[00:25:40] Thanks for tuning in and additional thanks to our sponsor, the Department of Mass Media at Southeast Missouri State University and to Taylor and Francis, the publisher of our academic journal Journalism History. Until next time, I’m your host, Teri Finneman, signing off with the words of Edward R. Murrow. Good night. And good luck.