Spinning History: The Role of Public Relations in Understanding the Presidency

Spinning History: The Role of Public Relations in Understanding the Presidency
Ida Mckinley: Science, Medicine, Inventions and tech

Skill: High School/College
Time Required: Three weeks


After the births and deaths of her daughters, Ida McKinley’s health deteriorated greatly.  Thus, in the 1898 Presidential campaign she had a limited public role.  Her absence led to rumors that became a liability to the McKinley candidacy; it also became the impetus for the first presidential campaign public relations material. To squash rumor, McKinley’s campaign managers published a romantic biography of her, painting the future president as a devoted husband worthy of the presidency. 


In this lesson students will gain an understanding of the role of public relations in the history of the American Presidency as well as knowledge for evaluating public relations campaigns.

Materials Required:

Access to the Internet and/or access to a public library.


This lesson is directly connected to a lesson entitled. “Scandals, Gossip, and the American Presidency,” which can be found among the Eleanor Roosevelt lesson plans.  

Have students identify an event in the history of the American Presidency, perhaps one already covered in the class.  

Divide the class into four groups.   Two groups will be lobbying to become the public relations firm hired by the person the scandal is about (or her political candidate); the other two groups will be lobbying to become the public relations firm of opponents of the person the scandal is about.  For example, if using the Ida McKinley scandal, two public relations firms would be lobbying to work for William McKinley and the other public relations firms would be lobbying to work for William Jennings Bryan.  

Tell each group that the first step in designing a public relations strategy is getting a clear picture of previous public relations successes.  Thus, they must begin this project by researching the history of scandals and well as the history of public relations.  

Once each group has a clear understanding to both histories, direct them to design a public relations strategy that will be presented to the candidate for approval.  

Have each group present a sales pitch to the class explaining their plan and share with the class that they must justify their plan by pointing out similar successful public relations strategies in history.  

When each group presents, have the groups that are not competing against each other serve as the candidate and choose the strategy they would utilize.  To make sure this does not become a popularity contest, have the students who are selecting the winning strategy each write a justification for their decision; the evidence for their justification must be found in the history of public relations.   

Encourage groups, when presenting their strategies, to use a hard sales approach and to make their presentations flashy.  Encourage the students serving as the candidate to ask questions as if they are truly that person.

Extending the Lesson:

One of the few presidents to not have a scandal associated with his presidency and to also not have an opponent to campaign against was George Washington.  Have each student select one of the founding fathers to run against George Washington.  Each student will first need to research this founding father and then design a public relations strategy in opposition to George Washington’s candidacy for president.

Sources & Resources:


   Brinkley, Alan and Dyer, Davis.  The American Presidency.  New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004.      

   Cronin, Thomas E. and Genovese, Michael A.  The Paradoxes of the American Presidency.  New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.      

   Genovese, Michael A.  The Power of the American Presidency: 1789-2000.  New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.      

   Ponder, Stephen.  Managing the Press: Origins of the Media Presidency, 1897-1933. New York: St. Martins Press, 1998.      

   Rose, Gary L.  The American Presidency Under Siege.  Albany: State University of New York Press, 1997.      

   Tye, Larry.  The Father of Spin: Edward L. Bernays and the Birth of Public Relations. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1998.      

   Waterman, Richard, Wright, Robert, St. Clair, Gilbert K.  The Image-Is Everything Presidency: Dilemmas in American Leadership.  Boulder: Westview Press, 1999.      

   Western, Jon.  Selling Intervention and War: The Presidency, the Media, and the American Public.  Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 2005.
Ida McKinley:
   Anthony, Carl Sferrazza.  First Ladies: The Saga of the Presidents’ Wives and their Power, 1789-1961. New York: HarperCollins, 1990.
   Belden, Henry.  Grand Tour of Ida Saxton McKinley and sister Mary Saxton Barber, 1869.  Canton: H. S. Belden, 1985.
   Bell, Carol Willsey.  Ancestry of Ida Saxton McKinley, wife of Pres. William McKinley.  Columbus: Ohio Historical Society, 1975.
   Boller, Paul.  Presidential Wives: An Anecdotal History.  New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.
   Caroli, Betty Boyd.  First Ladies: From Martha Washington to Laura Bush.  New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.
   Linsay, Rae.  The Presidents’ First Ladies.  Englewood Cliffs: Gilmour House, 2001
   Philips, Kevin P. and Schlesinger, Arthur Meier.  William McKinley, 1897-1901: The American Presidents Series.  New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2003.
   Roberts, John B.  Rating the first Ladies: The Women Who Influenced the President.  New York: Kensington Publishing Corp., 2003.
   Watson, Robert P.  The Presidents’ Wives: Reassessing the Office of first Lady.  Boulder: Lynne Rienner Publishers, Inc., 2000.


History of Public Relations

The American Presidency and Public Relations

Public Opinion and the American Presidency


This lesson was written by Debra L. Clark, Kent State University.