Twenty one years ago today, East German authorities opened their border to West Berlin. The Berlin Wall served as the symbolic divide between democracy and communism during the Cold War. For 28 years, East and West Germans were prohibited from communicating with one another. The collapse of the Berlin Wall led to Germany’s emotional reunification, and reversed, as Winston Churchill described—“the iron curtain.”
As a student of public relations and history, I am fascinated by the media’s perception of certain events and its impact on public opinion. For many, Reagan’s infamous “Tear Down this Wall” speech a few years earlier on June 12, 1987, represented a new era—a profound turning point in history with the power to unite a world once divided.
In my opinion, simplicity is often the most effective characteristic of a well-crafted speech. In his speech, Reagan said:
“General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization, come here to this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”
Reagan also alludes to Kennedy’s renowned “Ich bin ein Berliner” (I am a citizen of Berlin) speech on June 26, 1963, when he said,
“…President Kennedy spoke at the City Hall those 24 years ago, freedom was encircled, Berlin was under siege. And today, despite all the pressures upon this city, Berlin stands secure in its liberty. And freedom itself is transforming the globe.”
Although Kennedy and Reagan were of different political parties, both emphasized the importance of freedom and liberty. Both had simple, authoritative and optimistic communication styles. They instilled a sense of confidence among the American people and established a firm stance on democratic values domestically and abroad.
Surprisingly, Reagan’s “Tear Down this Wall” speech did not receive extensive media coverage initially. Several opinion columnists criticized Reagan for being too naïve and idealistic. According to an article in USA Today, the speech itself did not impress East Germany's hardline communist rulers either. Former Politburo member Guenter Schabow said on Deutschlandfunk (a German national news radio station) that “we were of the opinion that it was an absurd demonstration by a cold warrior — but also a provocation that fundamentally weighed on Gorbachev's willingness to reform.”
When Reagan’s powerful words became a reality, the media began praising his bold stance on human rights and a firm U.S. foreign policy. Sometimes I wonder how Reagan’s speech would have been perceived if new media was part of the equation. In 1987, the traditional media outlets of television, radio and newspapers controlled the messages that were disseminated to the public. Today, everyone is a journalist—the web is filled with millions of conversations, opinions and comments. With YouTube, blogs and Twitter, people all over the world can share information and create communities.
In spite of the changing dynamics of public opinion and the influx of new communication technologies, we cannot deny the power of words. Reagan’s speech defined a generation, and even though his speech was not covered as extensively at first, his words will be used as inspiration for years to come.
Arielle Herskovits is a student at Boston University majoring in Public Relations. She has held internship positions on Capitol Hill, at a large strategic communications firm and at a local nonprofit organization. She writes a political communication blog entitled “Political Persuasion” (http://ahersko.wordpress.com).