The 90th Academy Awards are right around the corner, and one of the leading contenders is Steven Spielberg’s The Post, a nail-biting and in-depth look behind The Washington Post’s 1971 decision to publish the top-secret Pentagon Papers. In today’s hot-bed environment of ‘fake news’ labels and increasing attacks on the press, this film resonates more than ever.

The papers documented decades of questionable federal involvement in the Vietnam War. Katharine Graham, the first female publisher of a major American newspaper, and Ben Bradlee, the legendary Post editor, race to keep up with The New York Times in exposing the cover-up of government secrets. Graham risks jailtime and her family-owned newspaper to stand for the First Amendment’s promise of a free press.

It’s hard to resist the exhilarating portrayal of old-school journalism and the imagery of a massive printing press chugging along, but the most valuable takeaways for any PR/business-minded professional are the leadership themes highlighted throughout the movie.

As trusted experts for clients, successful PR leaders hold these leadership themes in high regard:

  1. Conviction. As Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep) says in the movie, “The decision’s made. I’m going to bed.” After making the decision to publish despite tremendous intimidation and threats, she didn’t waver. This, in turn, increased her employees’ trust in her resolve.
  2. Honesty. The after-the-fact obfuscation of the truth contained within the Pentagon Papers was almost as damning as the facts themselves. Even in the face of bad news, your employees and clients appreciate honesty and transparency. Delaying bad news will only compromise the faith others have in you.
  3. Courage. As a leader, you’re a living example for those around you. In a seminal moment of the film, after appearing before the US Supreme Court, Graham walks down the courthouse steps through a cascade of proud, admiring women. Her transformation in the movie into an assertive leader at a time when women were discouraged from taking leadership roles is especially inspiring.
  4. Respect. Graham respected her reporters and their mission – “to serve the governed, not the governors.” She understood the tremendous pressure and risk they were all facing, and her resolve to publish was bolstered by the fact that she truly believed in the value of the work her reporters were doing.
  5. Responsibility. Great leaders put the good of the organization above their personal benefit. A turning point in the movie was when it was revealed that “70 percent [of the decision to remain in Vietnam] was to avoid the humiliation of an American defeat” and that “no president wanted to be the one who lost the war.” A sobering reminder that pride can come with great costs.

What did you think of the movie? Tweet at us (@RHstrategic) with the hashtag #Oscars to share your thoughts!


RH Strategic is a Seattle and D.C.-based communications firm providing strategic public relations for innovators in the technology, public sector and healthcare markets.