On the eve of a historical presidential election, many are remembering another woman who made history.
Janet Reno, America’s first female attorney general, died Monday of complications from Parkinson’s disease. She was 78.
Reno was the second-longest-serving attorney general in United States history.
After law school, Reno worked for four years as an associate at Brigham & Brigham, before becoming partner at Lewis & Reno, where she stayed for four years. In 1971, Reno decided to work with the Florida House of Representatives as a staff director.
After a brief return to the private sector, she was appointed as Florida’s State Attorney in Miami, becoming the first woman to ever hold that position. Reno stayed in the job for about 15 years until [former president Bill Clinton] tapped her to become the 78th US attorney general.
Reno’s accomplishments as attorney general include leading the Justice Department’s antitrust case against Microsoft and overseeing the convictions of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh and the “Unabomber,” Ted Kaczynski.
However, she was no stranger to controversy and criticism.
Ms. Reno’s tenure as attorney general was bracketed by two explosive events: a deadly federal raid on the compound of a religious cult in Waco, Tex., in 1993, and the seizing in 2000 by federal agents of Elián González, a young Cuban refugee who was at the center of an international custody battle and a political tug of war.
Here are four inspiring quotes from the former attorney general—and what they can teach PR pros:
1. “I made the decision. I’m accountable. The buck stops with me.”
Reno approved the FBI raid of the Davidian cult compound in Waco only 38 days into her position. The raid led to the deaths of roughly 80 people, including many children.
Though Reno was strongly criticized for her decision, many applauded her straightforward acceptance of responsibility for the crisis.
The disaster could have sent her packing, but the fact that she forthrightly took the blame (“I’m accountable. The buck stops with me.”) instead established her in the public mind as the rare political figure who accepted responsibility for her actions.
In a similar manner, PR pros who advise their clients and organizations’ leaders to step forward and accept the blame for mistakes can more quickly start rebuilding people’s trust. They also can avoid further backlash from angry consumers displeased with corporate “non-apologies.”
2. “Until the day I die, or until the day I can’t think anymore, I want to be involved in the issues that I care about.”
Reno was known for her no-nonsense approach to life and the law. Though many disagreed with her decisions, Reno was uncompromising and passionate about obtaining justice.
“The Department of Justice is committed to asking one central question of everything we do: What is the right thing to do? Now that can produce debate, and I want it to be spirited debate. I want the lawyers of America to be able to call me and tell me: Janet, have you lost your mind?” she once said.
Whether you work for a nonprofit organization or in corporate communications, PR pros of all stripes will probably find that their best work comes in a position that stokes their passion.
The PR industry offers abundant career options and job descriptions. It’s up to you to hone your experience—and your skill set—into a lifetime communicating for clients and organizations you love.
3. “ If somebody thinks I have an integrity problem, then the honest thing to do is to tell me what they think it is and let me address it.”
Reno’s applied her blunt words to her shortcomings, as well as legal matters.
The New York Times reported:
… Ms. Reno was applauded for a straightforward integrity and a willingness to accept responsibility, but she was also fiercely criticized. Republicans accused her of protecting President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore when, in 1997, she refused to allow an independent counsel to investigate allegations of fund-raising improprieties in the White House.
As with her actions after the Waco, Texas raid, her unflinching words and actions to continually improve endeared her to many.
Communicators can take that lesson to heart, as well as criticism on their techniques and campaigns. Those who fix problems, as hard as they might be to correct, can find many more opportunities open to them.
4. “Just remember, strength and courage. If you stand on principle, you’ll never lose.”
The New York Times reported:
Imposing at 6-foot-1, awkward in manner and blunt in her probity, she became a regular foil for late-night comics and a running gag on “Saturday Night Live.” But she got the joke, proving it by gamely appearing on the show to lampoon her image.
The comedy could not obscure her law-enforcement accomplishments. Ms. Reno presided over the Justice Department in a time of economic growth, falling crime rates and mounting security threats to the nation by forces both foreign and domestic.
Reno got the last laugh when she appeared on “Saturday Night Live” following her announcement that she was stepping down from office.
Communicators don’t always see the results they wish nor get the credit they deserve—and some can find themselves scapegoats once an online firestorm or PR crisis erupts.
However, to those who persevere and keep their principles, success is sure to follow.