Those of us who know public relations history might recall that one of our own, Edward Bernays, is credited with the PR effort that introduced ballet to the American public in 1915. Although he admitted he initially had no interest in dance, Bernays immersed himself in all aspects of the art and tailored the information he shared to the audiences. Vogue’s fashionable readers were introduced to the elaborate costumes and fabrics, and readers of Physical Culture learned about the training regimens of the athletic dancers.
By meeting the diverse publics where they were, and entering their world with information they were interested in, Bernays sold out Sergei Diaghilev's Ballet Russes American tour before it opened. According to the Museum of Public Relations, “Bernays had remolded biases to get his story told. The American view of ballet and dance was changed forever.”
This week, ballet in America is once again challenging Americans to embrace change. Two dancers who are African American, Misty Copeland and Brooklyn Mack, will play the lead roles in Washington Ballet’s Swan Lake. Dance critic Sara Kaufman reported on the announcement and wrote, “the two will effectively shatter the all-white stereotype of Swan Lake, the most traditional of ballets." Kaufman quotes Washington Ballet Artistic Director Septime Webre as saying, “As an artist, Misty is changing the paradigm as to what a ballerina should look like.” Although I don’t follow ballet closely, I knew of Copeland because she’s from my home state. I became a big fan after her bold Under Armour commercial last year produced by Droga5, and an even bigger fan after I heard her story on NPR.
As public relations professionals, we often have the great privilege to usher in change. We are often the first ones to hear about change in before-going-public meetings. To be the diplomats of change is a perk of our job, and one we should take seriously. True PR professionals don’t spin – they span the distance between people’s currently held beliefs with compelling stories that serve to introduce change in a way that speaks to individuals. Whether it be sharing stories via traditional media, social media or through brand partnerships, spanning that distance helps people embrace change – just as Americans embraced the Russian ballet in the 1900s … and just as last night’s crowd at the Kennedy Center embraced Misty Copeland and Brooklyn Mack as the lead dancers in Swan Lake.
Update: Misty Copeland made history once again on June 30, 2015, when she was promoted to Principal Dancer at American Ballet Theatre.