Most historians peg the birth of modern public relations to the late 19th or early 20th century. But one of America’s founding fathers was pioneering the art of public relations nearly two centuries earlier, demonstrating a sophisticated understanding of both mainstream media and public opinion. In addition to being the first Secretary of the Treasury, author of the Federalist Papers, and trusted adviser to General/President Washington, Alexander Hamilton was one of the most gifted strategic communicators of his time.
In fact, the Institute for Public Relations’ lifetime achievement award is named after Hamilton.
Here are four lessons for modern PR professionals from the life and career of Alexander Hamilton:
1 Promote your client, not yourself.
Perhaps Hamilton’s greatest achievement in public relations was his defense of the U.S. Constitution. After the Philadelphia Convention, the Constitution faced an uphill battle in earning ratification from individual states. Hamilton joined with James Madison and John Jay to write the Federalist Papers, a series of 85 essays designed to convince the citizens of New York to support their “client.”
Notably, the writers did not claim credit for the individual essays in an effort to ensure the focus remained on the Constitution and not the authors. Not only did New York ratify the Constitution, the Federalist Papers were also published in multiple states and became a handbook for defenders of the Constitution nationwide. It wasn’t until years later that the identities of the authors were revealed.
2 In a crisis, tell the truth and regain control of the story.
Alexander Hamilton was part of America’s first high profile political sex scandal, and proved himself a skilled crisis communicator. It all began when Hamilton was wrongly implicated in a financial scandal involving the husband of a woman he was having an affair with. The accusations threatened not just his reputation, but also the new nation’s fragile economy. Hamilton knew that his only option was to admit the affair and, in the interest of full disclosure, he published a pamphlet including private letters and embarrassing details. Hamilton’s reputation suffered irreparable harm, but he cut off what could have been a long, public investigation, and the nation’s Treasury and economy emerged unscathed.
3 Take your message to the people.
After the election of President Thomas Jefferson and the rise of the Democratic-Republican party, Hamilton, a Federalist, sought a way to ensure his party’s ideas continued to be shared with the people of New York. Thus, in 1801, he decided to launch the New-York Evening Post, the highly regarded newspaper that eventually became the New York Post. Hamilton was truly ahead of his time in realizing the power of every citizen to become an individual media outlet.
4 Don’t lose sight of your primary goal.
When Hamilton identified a political goal, he displayed remarkable discipline in his communications and negotiations. Despite believing that the Constitution fell short, Hamilton vigorously and effectively defended the document, recognizing that it was far superior to the Articles of Confederation, and its failure could mean disaster for the fledgling republic. Another example of Hamilton’s extraordinary gift for communications and principled compromise was the Compromise of 1790, when he earned the necessary support for the federal government to assume the debts of individual states (benefiting the North) in exchange for his willingness to move the national capital to Washington, D.C. (benefiting the South).
The Broadway musical “Hamilton” and the debate over who should appear on the $10 bill have generated renewed interest in the historical and political impact of Alexander Hamilton. In my opinion, he deserves an honored place in the field of public relations as well.