Fiftieth Anniversary of JFK’s Communication Milestone

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The White House after sunset taken by C Spence (Flikr)

While many people are celebrating the 50th anniversary of John F Kennedy’s inauguration as the 35th President of the United States of America, we’re celebrating the momentous communication milestone that followed.

Four days after being sworn in as President, JFK became the first American President to deliver a live televised press conference.

While previous Presidents had often delivered press conferences, none had used the new medium of television to speak directly to Americans, live and unedited. In the years that followed, JFK gave Americans unprecedented access to the inner workings of his government, paving the way for the communication practices we see today.

According to an interview with Pierre Salinger, Press Secretary to President Kennedy, “…when President Kennedy started televised press conferences there were only three or four newspapers in the entire United States that carried a full transcript of a presidential press conference. Therefore, what people read was a distillation. . . . We thought that they should have the opportunity to see it in full.”

Fifty years after Kennedy delivered the first of 63 live press conferences, President Obama continues to use live press conferences as well as weekly online videos to deliver messages direct to the public. Technology has made it possible to further expand on Kennedy’s vision for communication, with Obama using his weekly online video to deliver both the good, the bad and the ugly news of the day. And Obama isn’t the only video star at the White House. The Vice President, First Lady and senior staff members all use video to communicate complex messages in a simple way, with a recent video using a whiteboard to show healthcare savings and demonstrate the benefits of the new law.

While Kennedy may have been the first US President to deliver a live televised press conference, Harry S Truman was the first President to deliver a television address from the White House. In October 1947, Truman recorded a plea for his fellow Americans to support the food saving program of the Citizens Food Committee, to provide food to send to starving Europe.

Television was so new in the 1940s that J. Leonard Reinsch, a former radio adviser to the White House recalled “…going into the President’s office when they had the first television set. There was a pickup from the Congress and no one, of course, knew how to tune the set. This was a RCA set, and I was in the communications business. I was a television man as well as a radio man; therefore, I should know all about television sets; so, they expected me to tune the set in properly, I walked over to the set — I had never seen the controls before — and was fortunate enough to get a real good picture. My reputation as a communications man remained on a high level at least in that area.”

The television in the Oval Office (if there is one at all) might be flatter and larger than Truman or Kennedy’s sets, but the medium continues to be one of the most powerful channels to update a nation about natural disasters, domestic and international conflicts and legislative reform.

Press conferences continue to be a popular choice of politicians the world over, and live crosses are becoming more ubiquitous with the growing appetite for footage from 24-hour news channels and online media.

While we could go on about the changing face of press conferences for kilobytes, we thought we’d take a moment to look back at some of the other changes in communication that have occurred since Kennedy’s inauguration.

There are three in particular we think deserve consideration: photography, the Internet and electronic mail.

Photography played an important role in Kennedy’s communications activities. White House photographers and media captured the youthful family in the White House and provided Americans with a glimpse inside the ‘people’s house’. Many of the images from Kennedy’s time in the White House are now stored at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum and form part of a remarkable digital project celebrating the 50th anniversary. The way we take photographs has also changed, with the ability to snap a photo from a camera phone and upload it to a news site or blog in seconds.

The second thing that’s changed since Kennedy took office is the introduction of the Internet. While President Kennedy may have millions of page impressions across the world wide web, it was only a dream during his presidency. The internet has allowed Presidents to communicate directly with their constituents in their homes and at work. The White House now tweets, has a Facebook wall, blogs and posts photos on Flickr and videos on YouTube. What would JFK think?

Thirdly, while Kennedy and his predecessors ran their White House with the help of telegrams and the good old American Postal Service, his contemporaries rely on the speed of electronic mail. No doubt millions of emails are sent and received by the White House every day with everything from media releases, images and RSVPs.

Sadly President Kennedy didn’t get to see out his first term nor see any of the advances in communication technologies that followed. However, he will forever be remembered for his famous inaugural address which included the lines: “ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for country”.

That’s a full lid people.

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2 responses »

    • Thanks David. It has now inspired me to do some research into communication lessons we can learn from Presidents and their senior communications counselors. I loved the interviews with Truman’s radio adviser and Kennedy’s press secretary. The Presidential Libraries have such a wealth of information! Cheers, Jack

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