Angry Thoughts
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Angry Thoughts

Was Eleanor Roosevelt using reviews and user-generated content without noticing?


Lately, I’ve been reconnecting with some of my past interests, one of those being historical series, podcasts, and documentaries. By chance, I came across CNN’s First Ladies, a documentary series about — you guessed it — the first ladies of the United States.

The fourth episode of the series focuses on Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and leader of the committee responsible for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. While watching the episode, I couldn’t stop comparing past actions with today’s daily life. And that’s when I came up with the question: was Eleanor Roosevelt already using reviews and user-generated content back in the 1930s? Before calling me crazy, let me explain.

Eleanor Roosevelt and her famous “I Want You To Write to Me” article

In 1933, when Eleanor Roosevelt became First Lady, the world was different. Back then, despite newspapers’ increasing importance in the opinion-making process, media companies were mostly run by men, some with widely traditional standpoints.

As a columnist and journalist herself, Eleanor was the first First Lady ever to hold a Press Conference. To make a statement, she decided to open it to female reporters only, arguing that, if newspapers wanted to know what was happening in her conferences, they would have to start hiring more women.

Initiatives such as this and others, like the ones in favor of childcare and against racial segregation, made Eleanor extremely popular, turning her into a media powerhouse, a position she already had on the day Pearl Harbor was attacked.

Besides her progressive ideas, Eleanor Roosevelt was keen on using all sorts of media available to express her positions, from newspapers to radio and, later on, TV.

In Eleanor’s early days as First Lady, in 1933, she collaborated with Woman’s Home Companion Magazine as a columnist. In that year, she wrote one of her arguably most famous articles, titled “I Want You to Write to Me,” asking readers to send her letters expressing their feeling and concerns.

Unless the sender agreed to disclose their name, the letters would be published anonymously and answered by Eleanor herself, something never seen before. Up until that date, all correspondence received by previous first ladies would be answered using a template.

The readers’ response was massive. The article was published in August and, in about four months, 300 thousand letters arrived. After that, the number decreased, piking again in times of crisis. Of course, not all of them could make it to the magazine, but Eleanor Roosevelt made answering those letters a major part of her job.

In an era without the Internet or social networks, the First Lady of one of the largest countries in the world found a way to collect descriptive data on how people lived in the country from East to West and their main concerns and needs. As a data-driven marketer, I can only wonder what interesting initiatives could be done with all that information.

I’m sure the information helped her giving voice to social problems, but that was not its only use. Historians widely believe that Eleanor Roosevelt played a key role in her husband’s presidency, turning the outspoken role of the First Lady into something new. It is not by chance that she is consensually described as loved by the American people. Being capable of leveraging the information from those letters probably allows her to navigate the political landscape until she became, as Truman said, the First Lady of the World due to her Human Rights contribution.

What can businesses learn from Eleanor Roosevelt?

If there is one thing that we can learn from Eleanor Roosevelt’s “I Want You To Write to Me” case study is that data is power. Regardless of whether we’re receiving good or bad reviews, all the information is good because once we have it, we can then decide how to act.

It’s worth mentioning that every concept should be analyzed within a context, so maybe it is too far a stretch to say Eleanor Roosevelt was using reviews and user-generated content in her favor. However, it is clearly possible to see the similarities.

As First Lady of the United States, she received wide-ranged letters, from compliments to cries for help. In an interview, she said that it was quite common for people to ask her to intercede and speak to the President. If we compare those to current customer reviews, we can say that compliments can be seen as positive reviews about the presidency and current country state, while complaints can be translated into negative reviews. Taking both into account is vital for any long-lasting business or product.

As for user-generated content, we consider it content generated by consumers that a company or brand can use, so parallelism can also be drawn. In her role as a columnist and her media interventions, Eleanor published or spoke about the letters. It is fair to say that she chose to present the letters that she believed would support the presidency the most or the topics she wanted to give a voice to. Businesses, nowadays, should do the same.

From Eleanor Roosevelt’s dedication to her correspondence, businesses can also learn the need to treat each contact as an individual case, avoiding templates and making each answer as personalized as it can be. Her careful choice of words and capacity to adapt her speech after Pearl Harbour is also an inspiration for crisis communication.

How can these lessons be applied today?

One of the funniest statements from First Ladies’ fourth episode is that, if Eleanor Roosevelt was alive today, she would undoubtedly be very active on Twitter and all other social media platforms, followed by many people.

In less than a century, so much has changed. Still, the lessons from past episodes can be taken and adapted to current times. I don’t know anyone who still writes letters, but everyone has access to emails or writes content in their social media profiles. That content can also be leveraged, either by turning it into insights or sharing it with the world.

From a business standpoint, it’s much easier now for a company to access data than before. It’s also much simpler to use the content, pick it according to our interests, and share it. However, this easiness comes with a challenge that makes current times much more difficult, but also more interesting.

Unlike what happened in 1930, communication is currently multidirectional, difficult to control, and highly unpredictable. Without borders, several intervenients interact in a messy landscape that includes rands to activists, politicians, and customers. All together, they make a complex and fascinating web that will keep evolving until it becomes History.

Originally published at on August 26, 2021.



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