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Winning the War of Words In Any Era: A PR Lesson From the Former Soviet Union

Apr 26, 2013

I love the discovery of something new, something unexpected. It doesn’t have to be profound. And usually, it’s the little things that excite me most. For instance, I love how when I order my breakfast empanadas they come wrapped, but unlabeled. Ham, cheese, chicken or beef? It’s always a surprise to see which one I bite into first.

I love the discovery of something new, something unexpected. It doesn’t have to be profound. And usually, it’s the little things that excite me most. For instance, I love how when I order my breakfast empanadas they come wrapped, but unlabeled. Ham, cheese, chicken or beef? It’s always a surprise to see which one I bite into first.

Speaking of surprises, during a momentary lull in my workload yesterday (that was a surprise!), I visited history.com curious to see what took place on other April 25ths. What I learned was fascinating and provided an insightful, if simple, lesson or two in public relations.

Samantha SmithThirty years ago yesterday, the Soviet Union released a letter written by the then Russian leader Yuri Andropov to Samantha Smith, an American fifth-grader. Andropov’s letter came in response to what Samantha wrote to him in December 1982, which, among other questions, asked why the Soviet Union wanted to provoke nuclear war. Now think how serious of a question that is coming from a 10-year-old.

No doubt impressed by the candor of her words, Andropov responded that the Russian people sought to, “live in peace, to trade and cooperate with all our neighbors on the globe, no matter how close or far away they are, and, certainly, with such a great country as the United States of America.”

Samantha Smith, of Manchester in Maine, became an international celebrity, making peace speeches and even writing a book. Tragically, though, on August 25, 1985, Samantha died in a plane crash just one mile south of the Auburn Airport, Maine. She was just 13.

Normally when people think of 1983 or the early 80s in general, they think of the Cold War’s final, and by some measures, most fearsome phase. President Regan had already labeled the Soviet Union the “Evil Empire” and by November 1983, several months after the above letter exchange, a series of planned NATO military drills called “Able Archer” provoked some Russian leaders into believing an actual preemptive nuclear strike was under way.

It was the closest the United States and the Soviet Union came to confrontation since the Cuban Missile Crisis, 21 years earlier.

The letter exchange is beautiful in that amid the backdrop of deteriorating relations and big picture geopolitics, the beginnings of a new Russian and American relationship were being forged by a 68-year-old leader and a 10-year-old child. I don’t believe ever hearing about this important event in school.

As for the PR point?

Client-agency relationships can also be fractious. And yes, sometimes, we, too, feel we’re about to have a war of words over ideas and big picture corporate direction. But in our digital age, where the 24/7 news cycle knows no pause and content must constantly be produced, it’s more important than ever not to let one area of disagreement spill over into other areas of understanding.

Thanks to a child’s innocence and her clear, unabashed words, Yuri Andropov saw the United States not as a conglomerate superpower, bent on the Soviet Union’s demise, but as a country filled with Samantha Smiths worried about the end of the world. A little girl humanized a nation years before history records a true thawing of tensions.

Clarity of language is something that all PR professionals should respect and appreciate.

So before we attack our clients with a barrage of anger, frustration and vitriol, on this 30th anniversary of the Cold War letter exchange, let’s all remember a little compassion and composure, first. That includes issues beyond our professional expertise, like reserving judgment until all the facts are in regarding what Boston bomber suspects Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarmaev learned or didn’t learn in their return trips to Russia or what the CIA or FBI knew and didn’t know regarding their security risk.

And while handwritten letters are something of an ancient art today, it never hurts to pick up the phone, call a challenging client and ask for some face time to settle differences peacefully.

I hope these Cold War lessons resonate with you as much as it did with me. I’m so sorry Samantha Smith never got a chance to grow up.

But at least she helped two nations mature. Amen for that.

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