It’s a blatant understatement to confess that for the duration of my time on this Earth, I’ve been almost maniacally obsessed with anything and everything even remotely connected to the late actress, witty comedian, and revered Hollywood legend Betty White.
Her touching personal biography, her impressive career, the believability she conveyed through her gripping character portrayals, her natural charisma and charm, her philanthropic spirit…the list goes on.
The year I was born, “The Golden Girls” had just premiered on the NBC network that previous fall to commercial and critical acclaim.
As the story goes, I was instantaneously hooked on watching the latest Friday night episodes in my baby carrier basket with my Italian grandmother, herself a recent widow at the time and self-professed fifth Golden Girl, giggling and cooing whenever the naive, but irresistibly charming Rose Nylund would appear on screen.
My infatuation and adoration only escalated from there, and has remained a permanent fixture of my own self-identification.
When word of White’s death broke to the media on New Year’s Eve 2021, just two and a half weeks shy of her centennial birthday, I processed the magnitude of the loss of my cherished idol in two fashions.
The first in an orthodox sense as a devoted fan who felt the painful sting of her passing. Despite her mature age, I, like so many others, truly believed she would defy the odds and outlive even my younger contemporaries. In my mind, she was not only unmovable, but immortal.
But the second way was much more reflective, rooted in the advancements she made to the public relations field, even unconsciously, and how those contributions remain pivotal pillars for the foundation of any effective communications strategy.
It’s all about the message – and timing
Superior communication is distinguished by keeping in mind not only the audience you’re speaking to, but tailoring what you want to say to influence the receptiveness it has and when you say it. People can get easily overwhelmed with information coming from multiple sources and channels.
Leaders master this concept, and understand that in order for their opinion or idea to be absorbed from the other side, they must communicate the message clearly and succinctly without diluting the important points that support their stance.
Additionally, while the phrasing of the message and the meaning behind it may be construed perfectly, if you’re not careful about the timing of when the message is disseminated, it poses the potential to be rejected, ignored, or mocked. Timing within the communication sphere, therefore, cannot be glazed over.
It’s public knowledge that one of White’s impeccable talents was the strength of her comedic and dramatic timing. She knew it was important to “listen for the beat” – just as one would with a melody – and seize upon it for maximum effect. Just like a quiet thunderstorm with an unrestrained versatility, her genius contributions kept audiences on their toes and longing for more.
As many legendary figures have attested to, it’s remarkably difficult to hit even a pre-scripted joke on cue that resonates with audiences, nonetheless one that’s extemporaneous. It’s no wonder that Betty White’s final interview, conducted by People Magazine, which planned a special edition celebratory feature in tribute to White’s milestone birthday, was prematurely published before she passed away.
For those who followed her illustrious career, it should come as no surprise that she entered the Gates of Heaven with one last brilliant parting gag for us to remember her by…because White is the original G.O.A.T.
To be a persuasive leader, don’t underestimate the power of authenticity
Learning to become an authentic communicator is a bit of an oxymoron. Oftentimes, there isn’t any form of direct verbal communication involved. Instead, it requires you to be an active listener when engaging in two-way dialogue with another party.
Considered the cornerstone of essential communication skills, stepping into the shoes of a compelling and persuasive leader requires you espouse pure genuineness in word and deed, being comfortable with giving and receiving honest feedback.
This is true in both finding and projecting your voice while ensuring that an audience not only listens to you, but respects your belief system. The key overarching attribute? Investing your wholehearted self – and the experiences you bring to the table – to build respect, trustworthiness, and credibility.
Until the day she took her last breath, White not only embodied, but most importantly, embraced, the value of leading through principles. Exceptionally authentic individuals are able to implement measurable effectiveness within the bounds of not only their interpersonal relationships, but also within a professional scope.
Defying the stereotypical standards associated within the entertainment business – specifically, Hollywood’s notorious ageism discrimination policy towards women – White stayed unapologotically true to who she was throughout every stage of her life, and never tried to emulate any of her peers.
Transcending complex barriers and paving her own path by relying squarely on her own sense of self, White’s accomplishments are staggering.
She worked in television and film at a time where there was no overlap. She owned her own production company when female executives and storytellers were non-existent.
And, up until her death, she continued to steadily receive booking offers as an in-demand commodity (look no further than a public petition on Facebook that led to her guest hosting “Saturday Night Live” at the tender age of 88). The arguable appeal she held to an unforgiving industry but a captivating audience? Leveraging her greatest asset by never compromising who she was and staying true to her heart, or her integrity.
Not only did White break the glass ceiling, especially for future generations, but she shattered it with every breakthrough she achieved.
Why DEI Principles have earned a rightful spot in the development of effective communications
In 1954, Betty White defied NBC network executives – and sent ripple shockwaves through the Jim Crow South – when she obstinately refused to cave into a campaign lobbying for the removal of Arthur Duncan, an African American professional tap dancer and series regular on her program, “The Betty White Show.”
White’s adamant position on the escalating controversy, which threatened the show’s broadcasting in select local stations throughout the Deep South, never wavered nor faltered. Ever the pioneer before the term was coined and became widely accepted, she formulated and executed what is now considered the gold standard DEI model.
She didn’t perceive the situation as a mere “problem” that needed to be addressed as a standalone issue; rather, she worked towards reframing it as a transformational opportunity to build an equitable and respectful experience that fostered a sense of belonging for everyone. The outcome? At White’s insistence, and without batting an eye, Arthur was incorporated into the show’s programming at every turn.
From a corporate communications vantage point, the amazingness of her approach is almost blinding. Retrospectively, White herself could have never imagined that through her singular, transparent, and outspoken voice, she warmly embraced the idea of diversity and inclusion in the workplace long before the term was even fashioned or the institution of its advanced programs.
It wasn’t trendy, it wasn’t driven by expensive budgets or a dedicated group of senior-level employees. In fact, it wasn’t even a thing. Not only was White a categorically reliable ally for minorities and the marginalized, but she demonstrated that when applied as part of an ongoing and continuous effort to ignite change and challenge traditional processes, the concept of DEI is an area where we can make a direct and meaningful impact.
As a vehement admirer and spellbound devotee of her official (and unofficial) fan club for nearly 36 years, I am eternally grateful to Betty White for so many reasons.
The laughs she supplied over the span of so many years. The empowerment she projected to women in the workplace who aspired to be leaders during a period of history where the customary reply was “impossible”. And, her inherent humanitarian compassion that touched innumerable lives, including those of the four-legged kind.
As recently evidenced by the viral and monetarily-backed success of The #BettyWhiteChallenge on what would have been her 100th birthday, the gifts she bestowed to the world while she was alive and the universally giving spirit we inherited from her following her passing will be felt for decades to come.
As a public relations practitioner, I am enthralled and indebted to her for the wisdom she imparted, despite the fact that much to my dismay, we never met face-to-face.
Without those critically valuable lessons, especially during such a polarized and heightened climate, I could never serve my clientele to such a high caliber. Unknowingly, she lived life by her own set of rules both in-and-outside of her lane – something that as human beings and professionals, we should all not only aspire to, but as she exhibited, take action towards.
So Betty White, thank you for not only showing us that love is all around and for being a friend, but for providing us – especially me – so much more than that.
Contact SWBR to learn more about how we can refine your approach in optimizing your internal and external communications strategies to achieve harmonized employee relations to meet your business goals.