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PUBLIC RELATIONS

6 Publicity Lessons From Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln was an early master of public relations. On the anniversary of his birthday, here's what you can learn.
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Although Abraham Lincoln is often remembered as one of our greatest Presidents, few people have taken the time to study his complete mastery of the then-unknown art of what we today call public relations.

As a serious Civil War buff and quasi-PR expert (hey, I run a public relations firm, but I don't claim to have all the answers!), I've listed six sure-fire tips pioneered by Honest Abe that will help enhance the image and reputation of any entrepreneur: 

1. Nurture the brand of you.

Abe Lincoln was an absolute master at currying favor with the White House press corps, sharing tips and quotes with many leading, pro-Republican reporters, and actually composing many speeches right in their newsrooms as reporters watched in fascination.

Tip: Establish relationships with the trade and regional press that cover your industry. If you begin sharing the types of tips and trends that Abe did, you'll soon find the media calling you for quotes, columns, and case studies.

2. Share the wealth.

As Doris Kearns Goodwin chronicled in A Team of Rivals, Lincoln populated his Cabinet with the very people he defeated for the presidency. They were the best and brightest thinkers in the land. Lincoln not only sought their counsel but made sure the media knew they were involved in key decisions.

Tip: One of the biggest challenges entrepreneurs face is scaling their business and persuading prospects to trust the owner's managers and employees and not him alone. The sooner you establish a strong team and publicize its abilities and points of view, the sooner you'll stop being perceived as a one-man band.

3. Embrace new technology.

In his superb book, Mr. Lincoln's T-Mails, Tom Wheeler describes our 16th President's complete mastery of an emerging technology called the telegraph. Like Twitter, the telegraph forced a writer to be concise. In one classic exchange with General Grant near the end of the war, Grant telegraphed Lincoln, stating: "If the thing is pressed I think that Lee will surrender." Lincoln's Twitter-like response? "Then, press the thing."

Tip: Take advantage of Twitter, blogging, LinkedIn, and other emerging technologies to heighten your own awareness and thought leadership (while demonstrating to Millennial employees and prospects alike that you're just as conversant with what's new as they are). 

4. Use comedy to defuse a crisis.

When Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton rushed into the Oval Office waving a report that the hugely successful General Grant had once again fallen off the wagon and had been drinking heavily, Lincoln leaned back in his chair and said with a sigh, "Tell me what brand of whiskey that Grant drinks. I would like to send a barrel of it to my other generals." Conversely, when bedeviled by weak commanders, Lincoln attempted to use humor to motivate them. Exasperated by General George McClellan's unwillingness to engage in battle with Robert E. Lee, Lincoln sent a telegram that read: "If General McClellan isn't going to use his army, I'd like to borrow it for a time."

Tip: Comedy can be a huge strategic advantage as well as a differentiator for any entrepreneur who, like Lincoln, knows exactly how and when to use it. 

5. Allow yourself to be vulnerable.

Lincoln was never afraid to be photographed at times of great despair. Nor was he afraid to share his grief with the nation when his son, Willie, died of tuberculosis in 1862. Lincoln also pardoned so many soldiers for so many crimes they had committed that Attorney General Edward Bates had to intervene and ensure that only the most deserving cases came to Lincoln's attention (otherwise, Bates feared, Lincoln's empathy would undermine the Army's discipline).

Tip: To err is human; to forgive, divine. I'm a big believer in allowing people to fail (as long as they learn from their failures). I'm also the first to share one of my failures with staff. I believe vulnerability is key to any entrepreneur's leadership. 

6. Timing is everything.

Lincoln knew that by freeing the slaves, he would elevate the Civil War from a battle between the states to a righteous, moral struggle. But he first needed a major Union victory to reinforce the hopelessness of the Lost Cause. Unfortunately, Confederate Generals Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and James Longstreet consistently beat their Union counterparts throughout 1861 and '62. It wasn't until after the Battle of Antietam, which, although a stalemate, checked Lee's first invasion of the North, that Lincoln felt he had a positive enough outcome to announce the end of slavery. He issued the Emancipation Proclamation a few months later.

Tip: Most entrepreneurs are adrenaline junkies who believe every move they make belongs on the cover of Inc. Let's just face the fact that (most likely!) it doesn't. Lincoln waited for just the right time and circumstances to announce real news, and so should you.

Last updated: Feb 12, 2013

STEVE CODY | Columnist

I'm a climber, comedian, and dog lover. But not necessarily in that order. I also happen to be co-founder and CEO of Peppercomm, a strategic communications firm headquartered in NYC, with offices in San Francisco and London. I publish RepMan, a daily blog, and have had the opportunity to appear on CNBC, MSNBC, NPR, and a host of other top-tier media over the years. scody@peppercomm.com

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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