Frances Perkins was United States Secretary of Labor for 12 years. She was once the most hated woman in America – the primary target in a series of withering controversies similar to the current health care debate.
Her experience demonstrates how ideas and people and programs get branded by the public.
It also helps answer this question: how can your nonprofit protect its brand when public opinion is so often built on unverified claims and even total nonsense?
Perkins’ 1935 Context – It’s hard to imagine now, but 100 years ago many American children worked at factory machines instead of sitting at school desks. There were no rules for minimum wage and maximum work hours. No insurance for bank deposits. No safety requirements for workers in mines and factories and warehouses and construction sites. No social security insurance. No disability or workers’ comp insurance. No federal regulation of the stock market. No medical insurance for the poor.
In the 1930s the Executive Branch and Congress addressed these matters with a flurry of legislation. Back then, during the Great Depression, public opinion was shaped the same way it was shaped during today’s Great Recession:
- One side brands a proposal as an unconstitutional invasion of property rights, a socialist affront to free markets, a violation of state’s rights and personal freedom.
- The other side brands the same issue as overdue adjustment to a corrupt market, a balance to an inefficient delivery system and overdue relief to an excluded population.
Each of these opposing brands was accepted by millions of Americans.
Operating within this public opinion maelstrom, Frances Perkins devised the Social Security Program. She also fostered much of today’s workplace ecology: minimum wage; child labor laws; fair labor standards; unemployment insurance; safety rules…. and much more.
My Own 1960 Context – An accomplished, austere, resolute lady in her eighties, Perkins became a lecturer at Cornell University. One afternoon a few of my classmates and I spent an informal hour with Professor Perkins. She was not a chatty person. But her mood was reflective, candid and open to our questions.
This conversation took place in 1960. Social Security and the other programs Perkins developed were highly regarded cornerstones of our society, universally accepted and admired.
So we were shocked to hear firsthand accounts of their birth in a firestorm of division, deception and hate within Congress, the media and the general public.
How could programs America took for granted have once been so controversial?
The important lesson, the lesson that informed my own career and can help yours, is found in her explanation of the reason public opinion, once so heavily divided, finally unified and affirmed her work. Here, in my words, is the point Professor Perkins made several times that afternoon:
She said: We knew our programs were right for America. Nevertheless, the President kept reminding us that being right was not nearly enough. He was a bulldog – insisting we use every means to define each program and to counteract misinformation. Then we must keep explaining and keep defining. Again and again.
We must never let up until each program is understood and accepted.
I do not know if public relations and marketing and branding were common terms back when Frances Perkins and President Roosevelt fought for their programs. But I do believe both leaders understood how the American public brands people and issues and organizations. I think they also understood basic concepts of brand management.
Our Lesson – For the purpose of this post, it does not matter who is right or wrong about which aspect of which national policy. What does matter is to realize that public perception responds to the claims of perceived authority figures. Those figures may be as informed and respected as the Pope or as innocuous as your quirky brother-in-law. In the absence of direct experience, personal observation or proven fact, the assertion of those who claim to “know” are the fibers which are woven into public opinion.
Our Question: given the above, and being dependent on a supportive constituency, how do you enhance and protect your own nonprofit brand?
Our Answer: You follow the presidential mandate given to the Secretary of Labor, the woman whose innovative programs and enduring friendship with Roosevelt changed American life forever:
knowing that public opinion is frivolous, you and your colleagues must use every means to systematically define and explain your program – communicating wherever and whenever and however you can. You do this because, like Perkins and Roosevelt, you know it is not enough to merely be right.
Nonprofit status does not justify passivity. It does demand marketing.
A Sad Note From The Trivia Vault: I can’t avoid mentioning a tragic footnote I learned years after I last saw Mrs. Perkins. When President Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act Perkins had reason to celebrate the greatest achievement of their enduring friendship and political collaboration. Some biographies mention that was also the day (August 14, 1935) Mrs. Perkins’ severely disturbed husband escaped from a mental institution!