“Truth is the foundation of all effective communications.” That’s the opening sentence of PRSA’s excellent rebuke of the term “alternative facts.” As professional communicators, none of us would question that. In these challenging times, it’s worth reviewing a few other basic premises in the PRSA Code of Ethics that guides our profession.

  • Preserve and protect the free flow of communication. In the code, there is specific reference to giving or receiving gifts and entertaining government officials as possible violations here. However, this section also emphasizes honesty and accuracy in all your communications, and the obligation to correct any erroneous information immediately.
    • The “Expertise” part of the code recognizes the need for continued professional development, research and education. It is through your research and thorough knowledge of the organization and the issue at hand that you will be able to achieve accuracy in your communication. It is through your education and professional development that you will understand the best channels, strategies and methods for accurately conveying information.
    • Being honest is, of course, assumed. It is our job to speak truth to those who supervise us and employ us, and then to carry that honesty through in all our public communication. If people begin to suspect that you and your organization are deliberately misleading them, then credibility will be difficult, if not impossible, to rebuild. The old saying that it takes a lifetime to build a reputation and five minutes to destroy it remains as true as ever.
  • Avoid real, potential, and perceived conflicts of interest. The points of this is “to build trust with the public by avoiding or ending situations that put one’s personal or professional interests in conflict with society’s interests.”
    • I have a personal story to tell here. Some years ago, I worked on an EIS (Environmental Impact Statement) project for the Montana Air National Guard, which of course was under the auspices of the U.S. Air Force, and thus the Pentagon. At the same time, I had started fighting the Pentagon tooth and nail over its mandatory, experimental and dangerous anthrax vaccine. I formed a web site, formed a national group, and even twice walked the halls of Congress. It was obvious that I had better inform the supervising officer of the EIS project what I was doing in my personal life, so I did. She took my written information and forwarded it to the appropriate attorneys in the Pentagon.

I waited. A couple of weeks went by, and finally the answer came back down: “Tell her it’s fine – just to keep the two projects entirely separate.” What would I have done if the answer was negative? I would have had to resign from the project or stopped my anthrax work. At that time, the anthrax work would have won out, because my own son had received some of those shots and I had gotten to know several veterans whose health was permanently compromised by the shots. But I’m glad it never came to that. The Montana Air National Guard and the Air Force did an incredible job on the project, and it was a privilege to be part of it.

  •  The independence and loyalty statements in the code can be difficult in practice. They are:
    • INDEPENDENCE: We provide objective counsel to those we represent. We are accountable for our actions.
    • LOYALTY: We are faithful to those we represent, while honoring our obligation to serve the public interest.

The independence statement hearkens back to speaking truth to power. We are obligated to provide objective, honest facts and truth to those who employ us. We are not “yes” people. I used to explain this to my clients within the scope of our first one or two meetings, and everybody would say yes, they understood. Well – they didn’t always. When a company hires and employee or an outside contractor, the assumption is that the person hired will do as told. We are in the position of being sure we do what’s right first.

I overheard a hilarious conversation between a nurse and a doctor this weekend, who had just met at a gathering. They were both laughing when the doctor said “Nurses are critical – they save your butt!” The nurse told the story of overriding a physician’s orders at one point, because those orders would have killed the patient. She wrote up her own orders, which could have gotten her fired, and the patient lived. The doctor later thanked her for her foresight.

We’re not quite in that position, thankfully. But any amount of time we spend training the management team about what’s ethical and legal, and explaining the possible ramifications of any given situation is time well spent.

This of course feeds into the loyalty statement: we are faithful to those we represent, but at the same time we have an obligation to serve the public interest. If a chemical has leached into the ground from a company’s operations, it’s in the public interest to be informed of any danger that chemical poses to the public. Whether or not the company wants to release the information is not the point. This kind of situation plays out across the country nearly every day. However, if the public interest is endangered, it’s my belief that the public interest takes first priority and the public relations counsel must work to ensure the company understands and takes the appropriate action.

To echo an excellent speech by NBC news anchor Lester Holt, the best thing we can do in these challenging times is continue to do our jobs. Do your homework. Be honest. Be accurate. Build good mutual relationships. Build trust. Tell your story. Be fair. Be loyal. Advocate for our profession. And serve the public interest as well as those we represent.

bill-of-rghts-scrollThere is no need here to do a recap of the 2016 election season. Our country is in no small amount of turmoil, and we’ve each had to decide what role we may or may not play in our civic and community lives as we move forward.

I’ve chosen to make small donations to those organizations which I feel are fighting the good fight in terms of the issues I care about. However, there is one issue which I am prepared to be involved in publicly for as long as it takes, and that is the First Amendment to our Constitution.  Here’s how it reads:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.  

There is an excellent site for a wealth of information on this:  http://www.firstamendmentcenter.org/about-the-first-amendment

I am particularly concerned that Donald Trump is not well informed about First Amendment rights, and as such, would like to dismantle most of them. I would like to think that as he becomes educated about what the presidency involves, he would re-think his stance. However, to date there is no evidence of that. His willingness to deport Mulsims goes against our freedom of religion; his frequent attacks on the press attack freedom of the press; when he disparages people gathering to address their grievances against the government (for example, the Electoral College). he attacks freedom of assembly and the right of people to redress the government for their grievances.

Unfortunately, however, deliberate lies are, for the most part, protected as free speech. Here is an article from the Atlantic about it:


This puts the burden on the media as well as all of us to call out lies when and where we see them, and to be able to discern the difference between fake news and real news. It’s widely known that a number of fake news sites have proliferate on social media, and it can be quite difficult to tell which ones they are. We’ll have more on that in another column.

Meantime, a related issue involves the state of journalism today. Our “Fourth Estate” generates as much criticism as anything else in this era. Top reporter Christiane Amanpour has a lot to say about it in this video:

As a colleague notes, Amanpour may not be everyone’s favorite reporter (though she is one of mine), and she may not be as much at an objective distance as some would prefer, her speech here is tremendously important.



Why I love my country

Recapturing my voice


Even at a very young age, this kid knew she wanted to write.

After over 30 years in public relations, I have wondered more than once if I’ve lost my own voice. I’ve often thought I learned too well to put my own agenda and own point of view on the back shelf in order to speak (and write) on behalf of my clients.

It’s no small worry. One of the things I’m best at doing is putting myself in another person’s shoes and seeing things from their point of view; and as former students would tell you, I’m also really good at playing the devil’s advocate. I’ll take a contrarian point of view just to make sure all the options are explored and ensure that students, clients, and anyone else I’m working with engages in strategic thinking – thinking that requires discernment and critical analysis.

Add to that a couple of facts that can complicate things:  as with many people in “performance professions,” I have a shy side that strikes at inconvenient times. I also hate confrontation, having had way too much of it in earlier years. In that sense, I’ve become more like my mother. When confronted in her later years, she finally stopped replying; she would just stay silent. I see that tendency in myself as I grow older.

So I’m going to use this blog to explore various aspects of my own voice, apart from the fun, silly and sometimes sharp-edged things I might post on Facebook. I might tell stories from my career (the guilty parties will remain anonymous, of course); I might talk about things that interest me a lot, such as the continued problems with the military’s anthrax vaccine, the lack of literacy in today’s high school students, the terrifying lack of civility, world awareness and intelligent thinking in this year’s campaigns for president – or the prevalence of age discrimination and the enormous waste it causes. There will probably be more topics as well.

I’m not sure I care a lot about who reads these posts; I care more that I recapture my voice. We’ll see how it goes.


snarky greenSometimes, the snarkiness online gets to me, as I’m sure it does to most of us. The rush to judgment; the being absolutely positive you’re right and everyone else is wrong; the passive-aggressive digs at others without quite naming them; the cynicism. I’m wondering where the forgiveness is; where is that part of the human soul that, instead of attacking and judging and flinging arrows, is willing to forgive when genuinely wronged, or even – horrors! – is willing to admit that maybe one is not right all the time and others may have a point? Where is the willingness to work on relationships, both personal and professional? Where is the recognition that time passes in an instant – that years are mere seconds – that when you finally realize you could say or do something toward healing, or reconciliation, or advancement of understanding, or adding a sense of hope to the world, it may be too late? Always remember that when you hold a grudge or a harsh judgment, the person (or people) against whom you hold the grudge or the judgment actually has (have) great power over you. You are giving them power by staying angry and cynical. It may feel like your own power, but it’s not – it’s theirs.

Oh, teachers – seriously?
I know it’s not politic to say the things I’m about to say, but I’m frustrated and angry. Last week, about 1 a.m. one night, I got an email from a student who’s been having a really rough term. She’s come out of the junior college system, and is one of my students. She’s an older, non-traditional student, by which I mean she’s not in the 18-22-year-old age bracket – and she’s smart. At the end of her email was a statement I’ve heard or seen one too many times:

“All this time in school I have been looking for someone to tell me what I was doing wrong so I could make it right and when it happened, I did not understand it. Up until this term, it can be said that I have been getting by. I have had instructors giving me A’s on my papers and telling me how wonderful they were. When in all reality a high school kid probably could have written better papers… I have you and I have (another professor) analyzing my papers, for the first time in my college life. I appreciate all the hard work and time you have spent on me…”

She’s right in that her papers have needed a lot of work. But hang it all, it’s not her fault. As far as I can tell, it’s the teachers she had in high school and junior college who simply did not drill the basics of the English language into her head.

And no, this is not an isolated Oregon problem. When I first started teaching over seven years ago at a couple of public universities (in a couple of different states), I was shocked at what I was seeing. I checked in with my public relations colleagues teaching all across the country. “These kids can’t write!” I shouted through cyberspace. “They’re darned near illiterate!” To my dismay, they said, “Welcome to the club.” They were fighting the same battles. A whole generation seemed to be slipping away in a muddy whirlpool of illiteracy.

I finally started asking the students themselves what on earth had happened. When we’d get midway through a term and I was still being handed papers that were more or less at a junior high school level, I asked them how they were graded in high school (or in any previous college classes), and what they were taught. What they have said, very consistently, is that they weren’t taught grammar, punctuation or spelling; and that their teachers graded them only on intent.

Are you freaking kidding me? Seriously, teachers? How on earth can you gauge intent if the grammar is so mangled the message is obscured? How can you gauge intent when an entire essay is just “stream of consciousness” writing, rambling and disjointed, with little or no relevance to the topic at hand?

O.K., I’ll throw in something for the benefit of the doubt: maybe the problem is not with the teachers. I’ve never taught in a K-12 system or at a junior college, so for all I know the problem is with school administrators, school boards, and bureaucrats in general. Maybe people who never step foot inside a classroom decide what teachers should teach, and how, and then tie the whole mess to public funding. I don’t know.

Nor do I know if you can blame lack of parental support for the fact that a teacher is grading on intent and overlooking grammar and spelling. Conversely, too much parental support can also undermine a student. One colleague at a public university called her students “sweet little snowflakes.” I asked her why, and she said “Because nobody’s ever told them anything different.”

Sometimes we’ll see a news report about educators who pad grades in order to make test results look good or graduation rates look good – all at the expense of the students, who remain woefully uneducated.

I don’t know where the real problem lies, but I sure have some questions. How can any of us justify turning out minimally-educated students with a casual “good luck” as they try to make their way in the outside world? Why are we – the so-called educators – throwing this burden over to the businesses who now have to tell the students they just can’t cut it? When did we lose the understanding that you don’t give a kid self-esteem – he or she has to earn it? When did we forget that softening grades means we don’t believe a student can learn? When did we lose sight of the fact that constant praise will make a kid constantly feel entitled to more constant praise without constantly doing something to earn it? Deep down, those kids know it’s all a pretense; they know.

When I ran my public relations firm, I used to say I would so love it if I could get paid just for showing up in the morning. Instead, for some perverse reason, I would only get paid if I produced results. So I did. And so must our students. We are expressing faith in them when we challenge them; we are doing them – and our entire society – a terrible disservice if we give them constant praise, padded grades and grade them only on intent. That’s a direct and underhanded message that we don’t believe they can do it.


Feb. 26, 2015
There are a number of people out there calling themselves public relations professionals who are anything but. The most recent example to hit my desk this morning: http://m.motherjones.com/politics/2015/02/cfpb-us-consumer-coalition-brian-wise-elizabeth-warren

This is an article about a grassroots organization called the US Consumer Coalition. Here are excerpts from the first two paragraphs: “Based off its name alone, the US Consumer Coalition—which bills itself as a “grassroots organization” that exists to “build bridges, ensure public awareness and mobilize the powerful voices of consumers and business owners….

“Yet last month, Brian Wise, one of the group’s founders, penned an op-ed in the Hill attacking the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the consumer protection agency that came into existence in 2011 thanks to Elizabeth Warren. The CFPB crafts financial rules to protect ordinary consumers—making mortgage applications simple, preventing banks from hiding fees and charges, and cracking down on payday lenders…”

Turns out the US Consumer Coalition is run and staffed by a public relations firm, and the firm won’t disclose who the client is in back of this. It looks to be a partisan effort, in that it’s apparently a lot of GOP operatives involved, but that doesn’t matter. The point is that it’s a front group. People of all political persuasions can be (and often are) guilty of this.

Our PRSA Code of Ethics addresses this kind of behavior. Under the “Disclosure of Information section is this: “A member shall reveal the sponsors for causes and interests represented.” A violation of this section specifically mentions front groups: “A member implements grass roots campaigns or letter writing campaigns to legislators on behalf of undisclosed interest groups.” http://www.prsa.org/AboutPRSA/Ethics/CodeEnglish/index.html#.VO-HBeFc4xI

Though not exactly parallel, my scariest full disclosure moment is worth repeating here. I was hired by a firm representing the Montana Air National Guard and by extension the U.S. Air Force, on a project in north central Montana. The Air National Guard wanted to build a practice (dummy) air-to-ground training range adjacent to tribally-owned land in the area. At the time, I had started a nationwide group to fight the military’s experimental, highly reactive, mandatory anthrax vaccine. On one hand I was working for the Pentagon, and on the other hand I was fighting Pentagon policy tooth and nail. I called the officer in charge of the project and told her what I was doing. She said “Hmmm. I’ll have to run it by our attorneys in the Pentagon.” I had a few restless nights, waiting for the results. About two weeks later the reply came back: Tell her it’s fine; she just needs to keep the two projects completely separate. I did, and we continued our work. Later on I was a real grassroots lobbyist, walking the halls of Congress twice on the anthrax vaccine issue – as a private citizen.

Take care out there. Most of us have issues about which we care deeply, and choices are not easy – especially when money is involved. Never put a price on your own integrity.