If I had not majored in Journalism, I most likely would have chosen to study history in college, but as it turned out my interest in history has been more that of a “buff” over the years. More to the point, I’m a history buff with a focus on the Civil War, World War II and the Cold War years.
For me, the latter part of the Cold War and everything that’s happened since started as current events, and so most of my knowledge of that history is from memory and the news coverage I’ve consumed over the years.
So if you were to ask me about the Spartan and Persian wars, I might give you a blank stare. Or if you want me to tell you something I know about World War I, I may end up drawing from what I learned in reading “All Quiet on the Western Front.”
However, based on what I’ve seen over the years, I sense that my education on history and that of most in my generation was much more well-rounded and in-depth than what schools are serving up today.
That’s why it puzzles me when I see anyone explain away their lack of historical knowledge with such statements as, “That was before my time.”
Of course it was, but the importance of understanding history is to know the lessons of history, and hopefully to make decisions today to avoid the mistakes of the past.
This is particularly true in public relations. One of the most effective ways to develop good PR strategy going forward is to have an understanding of the past.
For instance, anyone in crisis communications should have studied the Tylenol recall from 1982. That was when Tylenol, the leading over-the-counter, pain-killer medicine in the U.S., was at the center of a situation where seven people in Chicago had died, apparently after taking Tylenol Extra Strength capsules. Someone had tampered with the product, inserting cyanide into the capsules, causing the deaths. What investigators learned was that the tampering happened after the product had reached store shelves.
The company’s response was unprecedented. The CEO decided to remove all Tylenol Extra Strength capsules from all stores across the country until the root of the problem could be identified and addressed. This was at major financial cost to Johnson & Johnson, Tylenol’s maker, but the precautionary measures in the end saved the company’s reputation and the company itself.
While there are many lessons to be learned from this situation, the main one was that it's not possible to over-react when public health and safety is at stake and the threat is imminent. Ever since, this understanding has guided crisis communications thinking.
Societally, the lessons of history are more broad. We learned from the Industrial Age that communities can’t fully benefit from economic and industrial growth if the environment suffers as a consequence. Since then regulations, best practices and common procedures have been established to ensure that industry can survive and thrive while protecting the environment.
The PR tie-in comes when those of us in PR work to help organizations communicate on issues related to sustainability and Corporate Social Responsibility.
For anyone who gets their news from sources beyond People magazine and the TMZ network, much of what I just covered is self-explanatory.
But thanks to a substandard emphasis on history in the schools and the ability through technology to self-select almost all media we consume, there is an alarmingly growing number of insulated people who just haven't been exposed to the most basic history lessons. Because of this, they can't relate or appreciate the value such knowledge brings.
Here’s a bizarre example.
Justin Bieber, the teenage pop star who really needs no introduction, recently visited the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam.
Young Anne Frank became famous for penning a diary during her time in hiding in Holland from the Nazis during World War II. Her family had to live in hiding because they were Jewish. Her diary’s entries are touching in how they captured the innocence of youth, while detailing what life was like in constant fear of Hitler’s Third Reich. As history has documented, Anne Frank died of typhus in the concentration camp of Bergen-Belsen near the end of the war.
The seriousness of Anne Frank’s story apparently was lost on Bieber, who toured the museum, and presumably learned something of Anne Frank, but then wrote this in the guest book at the house:
“Truly inspiring to be able to come here. Anne was a great girl. Hopefully she would have been a belieber.”
Apparently, “beliebers” are his fans.
Justin Bieber is 19, and on his path to fame and fortune, one thing he didn’t have access to was a good and comprehensive education. But what can be disconcerting about this incident is that many of his fans may be about as appreciative of the lessons of history as their idol.
But equally important is that the pop star’s handlers who should know better, didn’t interject when Justin wrote in the guest book to make sure that whatever he wrote was in the spirit of the place and the moment.
It’s in the best interest of any PR professional to have a solid knowledge of history, because you never know when it might be important. And everything we do in PR requires context. Something as simple as taking a tour of a historical site with a celebrity can serve to reinforce the lessons of history, or as in Justin Bieber’s case, expose an embarrassing level of ignorance. That’s something any PR person should try to avoid.
If you're curous, here's a link to the Anne Frank House's Web Site. Very interesting.