With Jerry Falwell’s passing last week, I can’t help but comment on his life from a public relations standpoint. Whether or not you liked Falwell or sided with his views, you had to admire the deftness with which he manipulated the media to espouse his beliefs. Let’s take a look:
Falwell first gained national media visibility in the 60s by spreading his Word of God through his television show, The Old-Time Gospel Hour. The program harped on the crumbling morals of the decade of peace and love while waxing poetic on how to rebuild American morality through politics, family, media, education, etc. Once established through television, Falwell’s machine began to churn. He founded the lobbyist group, the Moral Majority (dubbed “The Religious Right” by the press core), that many experts say was instrumental in getting Ronald Reagan elected President. As his ministry progressed, Falwell conquered in print through The National Liberty Journal, another outlet designed to reach an even larger targeted audience. Moreover, his Liberty University – founded by Falwell in 1971 – continues to graduate thousands of young people vehemently dedicated to the cause. In 2007, the school’s first law school class will graduate.
Throughout his life Falwell promulgated his messages any and every way he could: TV, film, youth, politics, print, and more. If nothing else, you have to admire how hard he pushed. The man knew how to get on TV, he knew his audience, he understood the role inflammatory statements could play in message delivery (so long as there was a brief apologetic afterthought), and he genuinely believed that he was right. Writers, reporters and cameras will always be hot on a trail like that knowing that they will catch a few sparks … or maybe a wreck.
One final thought – there’s something else worth considering when charting Falwell’s unmatchable ability to get coverage: the media’s unquenchable thirst for the extreme. Cameras love this sort of explosive, Holly Roller drama. What’s more, audiences love to watch or read and say, “Man, can you believe this guy?” And in truth, we can’t; but rest assured, we heard his message – and millions listened.