Wednesday, October 11, 2017

"I know what he looks like in a windbreaker:" Image after disaster

I heard a little death knell in coverage of Lin-Manuel Miranda's effort to raise funds for Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurrican Maria, or what sounded like it. It may be that we've moved past, as a nation, the carefully sculpted image of the public executive in the wake of a disaster. From the New York Times:
Mr. Miranda was too busy completing the track to engage with Mr. Trump’s visit to the island on Tuesday. “If he’s announcing that he’s going to do an unprecedented push for aid, great,” he said. “Short of that I don’t need to watch. I know what he looks like in a windbreaker.”
The windbreaker is a shorthand reference to a phenomenon that's only been around since 1965, according to the Responder in Chief episode of John Dickerson's Whistlestop podcast. It's a great look at how the idea of the U.S. president as "action hero" evolved, starting with Lyndon Baines Johnson in 1965 after Hurricane Betsy hit New Orleans, pictured above. Johnson blurted out a promise of assistance, the locals were very greatful, and the congressional delegation from the area had another chit called in--because that's what prompted this visit, an unwitting model. Before this, there were none of the high-profile visits to which we have become accustomed.

You'll note that LBJ is in an ordinary suit, but this was not to last. Over the past 40+ years, advisers have advised their public executives to make appearances in disasters dressed for the occasion: windbreaker, rolled-up sleeves, caps, appropriate shoes. I've certainly done it, and it makes sense that the responder-in-chief, be it a state official or U.S. President, dress appropriately.

The entire form seems to have jumped the shark this week, or at least turned a corner, with the U.S. President releasing a video supercut of highlights of his visit to Puerto Rico, and, apparently not happy with the response to his action-hero effort, this tweet:
I like the context provided by Dickerson's podcast, which walks you right through how we got here today, and how different our expectations of public officials were once upon a time...as well as how important it has always been to the forgotten people on the ground that there be some level of response. Especially interesting is how the phenomenon was fueled by television optics over the years.

That visual aspect of post-disaster PR could next involve VR, virtual reality. Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg highlighted that in a tech demo, using VR to "visit" Puerto Rico post-hurricane. But he was widely criticized for insensitivity in doing so, and had to apologize. Perhaps the incident confirms that the public prefers "boots on the ground" approaches still, even from non-public-officials.

No matter what technology is involved, without a substantive response behind all that window- and action hero-dressing, you can expect responses like Miranda's. Applying a windbreaker does not an action hero make. So before you stock your CEO's office closet with outdoor gear, work on the substance of your response--and your statements--first. Otherwise, you're just a windbreaker.

(LBJ Library photo of President Lyndon B. Johnson, Cong. Hale Boggs, and Sen. Russell Long surveying damage to New Orleans by Hurricane Betsy, 1965. Photo A1271-22 by Yoichi Okamoto)

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