Once in a generation, a transcendent figure is divinely put in the right place at the right time and goes on to change the course of history for the better. On December 5, 2013, one of those figures passed away: Nelson Mandela. Why am I writing about this for a PR blog?
Other than the laundry list of his life lessons that have affected my attitude towards life, Nelson Mandela was one of the greatest and most influential public relations talents of all time.
From 1948-1994, South Africa suffered through Apartheid, a period of extreme racism and infringements on personal liberties towards the black population. People were imprisoned for political beliefs, marrying someone of a different race, even a Group Area Act that restricted where people could live depending on race. I have visited the overcrowded townships the black race was subjugated to, and nothing has made me appreciate more the privileged life I was given.
Apartheid ended in 1994 with a multi-racial democratic election that was won by Nelson Mandela – who had been locked away for 27 years. FYI – in the 1960s, Mandela was the leader of a violent revolutionary group.
Most expected him to rule with a fiery vengeance for the wrong that had been done to him and his people.
However, Mandela’s surreal foresight understood that the equality that he long struggled for would be unfeasible if he fed into any of the division and hatred that was rapidly spreading throughout the torn nation.
Mandela implemented incredible public relations tactics towards a seemingly impossible task: to mend decades of hatred between two races.
He took a previous symbol of white supremacy – the South African Springboks rugby team – and transformed it into a colorless identity for the nation. This was done through a savvy campaign “One team, one country” that was publicized throughout the country during the 1995 Rugby World Cup, which was hosted in South Africa.
Mandela used a form of celebrity endorsement, himself, when he often wore Springbok jerseys – a previously unthinkable action for any black person in South Africa. His advocacy for the team drastically changed public perception of the Springboks. All of a sudden, black people cheering for a predominately white team changed the entire conversation (see Jackie Robinson, with the races reversed).
Mandela did benefit from the undeniably greatest and most unpredictable tool in sports public relations: winning. The South African team defied all odds with upset after upset and eventually won the World Cup title that year.
For the first time in history, the nation as a whole had something to be proud of – and that was in large part due to Mandela’s public relations efforts.
South Africa still has a long battle ahead of them, but if it wasn’t for Mandela publicizing peace, instead of hate, when he was released from prison – it is likely South Africa would have fallen to the bloodshed and massacre that has consumed many other African nations.
Mandela’s incredible understanding of public perception and keen use of PR skills – changed the world for the better. Something which we can all hope to aspire for in our own lives.
“It always seems impossible until it’s done.” – Nelson Mandela
Photo Credit: Walter Dhladhla / AFP – Getty Images, NBC News, Nelson Mandela A Revolutionary Life