President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Fireside Chats are one of history’s most successful examples of using language to win public trust. In the depths of the Great Depression, FDR calmly addressed the public, which was shocked by bank failures across the country. For his all-important first “chat,” FDR called on one of his closest advisors, Harry Hopkins, for a way to explain the crisis (and its solutions) to a desperate and terrified public.
Hopkins is best known as the designer of many New Deal programs. Under his leadership, relief programs such as the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA), the Civil Works Administration (CWA), and the Works Progress Administration (WPA) provided income, independence, and restored dignity to millions of American families suffering during the Great Depression. What is less known about Hopkins, however, is that he played a crucial role in crafting the simple language used throughout Roosevelt’s public addresses, or that he was Roosevelt’s primary collaborative partner for the pivotal Fireside Chat that helped end the 1933 Banking Crisis.
Let’s examine FDR’s first presidential Fireside Chat for leadership tools we can apply today. Our role model, Harry Hopkins, shows us how to use clarity and transparency to explain a complex and emotional subject, and the trust such an approach can garner.
The Great Depression, which began with the stock market crash of 1929, significantly weakened the American economy. As businesses failed, Americans began to fear banks would lose what little money they had left, and people rushed to withdraw their funds—which is known as a bank run. These mass withdrawals, combined with unregulated and risky actions that left banks vulnerable to financial shocks, created a cascade of failing banks, and the banking industry collapsed. In an attempt to restore stability, Roosevelt declared a nationwide “bank holiday” on March 6, 1933, temporarily closing all banks to prevent further bank runs. During the bank holiday, Roosevelt’s administration crafted the Emergency Banking Act, which provided a framework for reopening financially sound banks, and reorganizing or permanently closing those that could not be saved. The question was, would the destitute American people trust what little money they had in a banking system that had so recently failed?
REBUILDING TRUST: The First Fireside Chat
With healthy banks scheduled to reopen on March 13, a lot was riding on Roosevelt’s March 12 radio address. Hopkins understood that success hinged on accessibility, and he provided Roosevelt with a detailed outline, distilling complex financial information into plain and familiar language.
Working closely from Hopkins’s notes, Roosevelt demystified how banking worked.
…and what caused the banks to fail.
Perhaps the most crucial aspect of Hopkins’s guidance was the emphasis on transparency. He worked with Roosevelt to craft simple language that exposed the corruption at the heart of the crisis: Some of our bankers had shown themselves either incompetent or dishonest in their handling of the people's funds. They had used the money entrusted to them in speculations and unwise loans. Then he helped Roosevelt explain what the American people could expect as banks reopened.
By using plain, jargon-free language, Hopkins helped Roosevelt demystify the crisis and explain his ideas in a way that was less intimidating to a frightened nation. His advice to emphasize transparency had the immediate effect of restoring the public’s confidence in the Roosevelt administration and gave the American people confidence to invest in the newly rehabilitated banking system. Sixty million people listened to the radio address, and the next day, newspapers around the country reported long lines of people waiting to put their money back into the banks.
Hopkins’s clear, honest communications had created the strong, emotional connection and trust Roosevelt needed to lead the country out of crisis. We, as leaders, can learn a lot from this straightforward approach.
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