Academic journal article Journalism History

When Good PR Goes Bad

Academic journal article Journalism History

When Good PR Goes Bad

Article excerpt

At 11:30 a.m. on June 28, 1971, Mafia boss Joseph Colombo arrived at Columbus Circle in New York Citys Central J. AJ'ark for the Unity Day rally that his Italian-American Civil Rights League had organized as part of an ongoing public relations campaign to protest discrimination against Italian Americans. At 11:45 a.m. he was shot and severely wounded by a man with press credentials who, himself, was shot and killed by an assailant who then disappeared into the crowd. Despite ongoing police and media attention,1 including a police statement that the shooting of Colombo "was 'detailed,' organized and planned with care,"2 allegations of Mafia involvement,3 and accusations of a Federal Bureau of Investigation, Central Intelligence Agency, and Mafia conspiracy,4 no arrests were ever made.

In the early 1970s, Colombo created an organization called the Italian-American Civil Rights League and mounted a widespread public relations campaign to persuade the public that the Mafia was a myth and that Italian Americans were being discriminated against on the basis of that myth. In so doing, he employed several accepted public relations tactics, including publicity, special events, fundraising, media relations, relationship development, and public policy influence.' Colombo was remarkably successful in the short term in using public relations to change public opinion about the Mafia and to reduce the use of the terms Mafia and La Cosa Nostra by government, industry, and the media. The civil rights league eventually claimed 150,000 members in fifty-two chapters nationwide,'' with twenty-five chapters in the New York area and ten on college campuses.' According to Scripps-Howard columnist Richard Starns, the organization allegedly had bank accounts with at least $600,000 in cash.8 Numerous political figures, including New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller, accepted honorary memberships.

However, in implementing his campaign, Colombo did not consider the wants and needs of one of his key internal publics, other Mafia leaders, many of whom were more interested in secrecy than in publicity.'1 As a result, he may have contributed to his own murder at the hands of his fellow Mafia leaders. Colombo suffered permanent brain damage from the shooting, lapsed into a coma, and never fully regained consciousness. He died in 1978, apparently a victim of his own successful public relations campaign.

In trying to understand how Colombo was able to create a public relations campaign that changed, at least for a time, public opinion about the Mafia, this article builds on public relations scholars' call for more research into how public relations has been used, and by whom, at different times in the past.10 In conducting this study, we accessed a variety of primary and secondary sources, including material acquired from the Federal Bureau of Investigation through Freedom of Information Act requests;11 transcripts of U.S. Senate investigative hearings; microfiche files of newspapers, particularly the New York Times, because the Colombo crime family and the Italian-American Civil Rights League were headquartered in New York City; magazines from the period, especially Time, which elaborated on the weekly events that had been covered in the daily newspapers; books, including Mario Puzo's Godfather and its subsequent film renditions; and television from the era. Primary and secondary sources for this period were prevalent due to the federal government's investigation of gangsters and the particularly public activities of Joe Colombo and the Italian-American Civil Rights League. Keywords used in searches included Colombo, Italian-American Civil Rights League, Mafia, and La Cosa Nostra because these were the most direct routes to information about this campaign. Together these sources painted the picture of an individual whose talent for public relations appears to have exceeded his skill as a mob boss and provided a glimpse into the use of public relations during the mid-to-latter half of the last century that adds to the historical record of the development of the field. …

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