When Peter Hannaford spoke everyone listened, even the President. It was from Hannaford that I first learned about Washington power levers and that crucial skill of managing the news media. He was powerful, brilliant, and a true gentleman whose finesse with words changed not only the times but an entire presidency.
As a young journalist, the idea of challenging the media was new to me. But with the Reagan electoral landslide, the times were changing and I knew I had to change too. The Dems would no longer be ruling the ruse in DC and Hannaford knew it as well.
A California-born PR man, Hannaford served as Reagan’s advisor when governor, wrote many of his speeches and radio commentaries, and served as his issues and research director in 1976, the year that sealed Reagan’s future as well, thanks the brilliance of Hannaford’s words.
During his 1976 challenge to then-President Gerald Ford, the late Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina asked Reagan how he felt about the negotiations underway to transfer ownership of the Panama Canal to the government of Panama. Reagan eventually decided against it, but the ever-knowing Hannaford dug into it and added it to Reagan’s stump speech.
The issue, at first, evoked little response from the crowds and Reagan considered dropping it several times from his speech. Hannaford, however, kept convincing him to leave it in until one day in Florida the crowd went wild when he came to the section on the canal.
The issue went on to become the rallying call of Reagan’s campaign and a symbolic reaction to the complicated foreign policy debates of the day, even though the treaty was eventually ratified by the Senate.
As for me, it was at Hanford’s urging that I left Capitol Hill and my job as a public affairs reporter and joined the world of corporate PR, where I spent the next 20 years of my career. I later returned the favor by hiring him to represent me and a client looking to increase federal funding for AIDS in a Republican-controlled Congress toward the end of President Clinton’s first term.
Yet it was from Hannaford that I learned the real value of the story just as Reagan did. From that Panama moment on, Reagan always made certain he had a story to tell about a person impacted by the policy. Even in his state of the union speeches, someone always stood up from the press gallery that Reagan introduced to the nation and whose story helped make his point.
Now it’s common practice for presidents to use this same tactic to demonstrate how they relate to the people. But no other president before Reagan did it with as much frequency or impact. It was pure Hannaford.
Sadly, he died in his sleep this past summer, but the lessons I learned from him aren’t forgotten, and that value of the story applied with every Carrier Media client.