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.

Cabinet Gorge Dam, just outside Huron, Montana on the Idaho border: the spot where Glacial Lake Missoula floods started.  Photo by the author.

Cabinet Gorge Dam, just outside Huron, Montana on the Idaho border: the spot where the Glacial Lake Missoula floods started. Photo by the author.

I love technology.  In today’s business section of The Oregonian is a wonderful story about energy-generating water pipes being tried out in Portland for the first time (http://www.oregonlive.com/environment/index.ssf/2015/01/portland_company_that_built_ci.html). As with most great ideas, it’s so simple you have to wonder why someone didn’t think of it sooner.  Here in the West, we’ve always been blessed with hydroelectric power, relying on the mechanical energy of water moving through dams to provide our electricity.  We’ve started to experiment with wave action in the ocean. The key has been moving water – the mechanical energy generated by moving water.

A group of engineers here in Portland apparently thought “Hmmm. Water is moving through pipes all over the city. Can we do something with that?” They could – and did. The moving water powers four generators and will provide electricity to about 150 homes in the area, the second test project for Lucid Energy.

I wrote my master’s degree capstone paper on public relations models for land use and natural resource issues in the American West, so I get really excited when I learn about something that makes so darn much common sense and can save both water and electric companies some money. Moreover, if we continue to see decreasing snow packs in the mountains, this source of electricity will prove to be critical.

If this company ever goes public, I’m buying stock. We should all stay tuned.

Of all the things I teach in public relations,  these two topics – legal and ethical issues – are probably my favorite.  They form the foundation of our public communication, and we can’t even conduct effective research – the rest of our foundation – without understanding these two topics.

I always make a point of saying that our profession rests on the First Amendment: 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.

It’s important here to remember that free speech and freedom of the press are protected by our government – and interpreted by the courts. Our freedom of speech is not without limits; and our freedom of the press seems to have become usurped in recent years by rampant commercialism, even though it’s obvious that any media outlet needs a source of revenue to survive.

The recent shootings in Paris have touched a strong nerve all over the world because of the threat to these freedoms, and some people have criticized the fact that what happened in Paris eclipsed the tragedies in Nigeria in the news – in which over 2,000 people were killed.  It’s a valid criticism, but not without tremendous complications: see http://m.theatlantic.com/…/boko-harams-quiet-destru…/384416/

It seems to me that social media has made all the difference in world-wide awareness about freedom of speech, freedom of the press, transparency and authenticity.  People are used to finding out what they want to know; they are used to expressing their opinions.  In those countries where there is neither of these freedoms, severe restrictions have proved to be fairly permeable, i.e., information still seeps through. For a long time, it seemed like it was inevitable that the barriers would come down, and all countries would understand the need for free speech – and for those things protected by free speech laws, including satire and comments about public officials and about public meetings.

It doesn’t seem so inevitable anymore. Now, as the march in Paris just demonstrated (and the U.S. was entirely remiss not to be there with other world leaders), it’s going to take a world-wide effort to protect both freedom of the press and freedom of speech. It’s on all of us.  The map below is the 2014 Press Freedom Index from Reporters Without Borders at  http://rsf.org/index2014/en-index2014.php.  You might be surprised that the U.S. in nowhere near the top of the list; read the full article to understand more – and get ready to defend your constitutional rights.



Jan. 6, 2016

From time to time I’ve mentioned that practicing good public relations is basically practicing good manners. You wouldn’t tIMGP0389reat your best friend rudely or callously – at least, not if you wanted the friendship to last for years. In the same way, companies and organizations which want their relationships to last treat their many target publics with respect and courtesy. From the front-line employees to customers and vendors; from financial backers to regulators to vendors; from local media to the surrounding community to industry leaders — even to adversaries – respect and courtesy lay the groundwork for longevity in an organization and those it serves. We all know this in public relations, but I wonder if sometimes we forget how important the small, daily moments are along the way.Group of business people sitting around a table compressed

Today, I’m reminded of these things because there have been four deaths in the past three weeks which have greatly affected me. They remind me that you never know when it’s the last time you’ll see someone, have a great time with friends or family, or enjoy a good conversation with a colleague.

The first death, the week before Christmas, was the 47-year-old daughter of my wonderful neighbors and friends here on the cul-de-sac. Wendy had battled cancer for the last 18 months; the doctors had finally told her they didn’t know what else to do for her, and sent her home. While my neighbors Bill and Deb are glad Wendy is no longer suffering, they have no idea how to cope with the loss of a child. They know their world will never be the same.

The second death was the 51-year-old brother of my good friend and “second son,” Vance. I’ve been the beneficiary of friendships throughout Vance’s family, from his father, Phil, to his other brothers, to his fiancé, Liz. Vance and his former wife had to bury a stillborn baby years ago, so Vance knows a little about what his father is going through now. Phil is certain his late wife was ready to greet his son in heaven, and maybe, indeed, she was. We all hope.

Those two deaths have been difficult because people I deeply care about are in such pain from them. The two most recent deaths, however, have knocked me off my feet.

The first was Mike Herman, known to so many of us throughout PRSA as the quintessential PR guy with the biggest heart and with true-blue friendship. Mike is also known throughout the world of country western music, a beloved figure who jammed and performed with the best. I got the news on Facebook three mornings ago, and found myself unexpectedly bursting into tears. It’s not that Mike and I were best friends, we weren’t; it’s just the fact that he was willing to be friends with me at all that was so wonderful. He was that super-human of a person in my eyes. When I was ready to get my knee replaced, he sent me the entire journal he’d kept of his own knee replacements. When I was designing a class on communicating for the public good – trying to change the way we communicate in this country so that we promote and encourage working together, building what we need, instead of tearing each other down – he wrote and asked if I’d contribute to a column he planned to start this month on change. Just hours before he collapsed in his kitchen in North Carolina, I’d read his last two posts on Facebook. Then he was gone.

And today. Today, I couldn’t reach a graphic artist I’ve worked with for years in Missoula (Montana). So I pulled up the local Missoulian online just in case there was news I should have seen, and on a whim, clicked on the obituaries. One of my best friends from my years in Montana, Mary, had passed away from a cerebral hemorrhage. Mary. My friend of 30 years; my Glacier Park buddy who loved to play pranks on the tourists. My buddy who was up for a good movie, a trip to Coldwater Creek and some shopping, or just a good meal out. Mary, who became a huge advocate for the disabled because of her beloved grandson, Sammy. This past September was the first time in maybe 20 years that I’d gone to Glacier without Mary, who hadn’t felt up to it. So when I left the park and swung down to Missoula for a visit, I spent an afternoon with her. Of course I did.

I just didn’t know it was the last time. I didn’t know that when Mike and I emailed each other about a possible collaboration that it would be our last direct contact. I didn’t know, when I went to Las Vegas last summer to see Vance and his family for the first time in many years, that I would be glad for the growth of our closeness as they all go through this period of mourning. And I didn’t know, when I attended a dinner at Bill and Deb’s house and their daughters and friends were all there, that I would not see that kind of laughter and joking around in their home again.

It’s good thatskiing email we don’t always know it’s the last time while the event is happening. I’m glad I didn’t know it was  the last time I’d go downhill skiing when I was with my grandsons at Schweitzer Mountain in Idaho some years ago. I just remember the fun that it was, and how giddy I felt that my grandsons were impressed that their grandma’ could ski.

I’m glad I didn’t know it was the last time I would see my mother alive that October night that my daughter and I cooked her dinner in her Spokane retirement community. I just remember the uproarious laughter and teasing, the fun with the grandkids – her great-grandsons – and how relaxed Mom was for the first time in years. The evening was so darn much fun. Had I known she would be dead a week later, I wouldn’t have felt so free to enjoy that night. Years later, that night still shines, untinged by sorrow.

I have to think it’s equally good if we conduct our businesses and organizations with the same focus and attention to the moment – and to each other. How often in our professional lives do we get so caught up in the business of busyness that we put off reaching out to each other, or neglect to extend that one little courtesy, or forget to do a favor for a colleague? Do we write the thank-you notes we know we want to write, but which get buried under press deadlines? How often do we mistake busyness with productivity, and forget, however briefly, that we’re the ones who are supposed to be good at connecting and establishing relationships? Recently a friend has decided to stop “liking” posts on Facebook in favor of actually taking the time to write a line or two. How much richer life will be for her and for all of us by taking those few moments.

It’s a matter of time, a matter of good manners, and a manner of being there, attentive, in the moment. That way, if it all ends tomorrow, we’ll still have moments we can look back on and cherish. We’ll still know we contributed IMG_0439something in our profession, made the lives of our clients a little better and a little easier, created something in the community that was not there before. We’ll know we loved our families and friends to the best of our abilities. And we’ll remember those who took the journey with us, who shared the laughter and the tears. Those are the moments we’ll remember.

View from the Portland Japanese Gardens looking east over the city to Mt. Hood.

Before I left on Christmas break, I read this editorial in the Oregonian:  http://www.oregonlive.com/opinion/index.ssf/2014/12/why_climate_change_will_not_be.html  – or, “Why climate change will not be on our 2015 editorial agenda.” 

I was stupefied, to say the least. These are the Oregonian’s justifications:

1) “We seldom discuss climate change, rather, because we focus almost exclusively on state and local matters. Weighing the costs and benefits of climate-change policy is best done at the federal and international levels.”

2) “We do sometimes write about state-level climate-change regulation, and almost never favorably. Why not? Because, again, weighing the costs and benefits of climate change policy is best handled at the federal and international levels. Oregon represents 1.2 percent of the population of the United States, which itself represents only 4.4 percent of the global population. It requires either profound myopia or incredible arrogance to pretend that any policy adopted by Oregon lawmakers will have a meaningful effect on the earth’s temperature. That’s why supporters so often justify state-level policies as beneficial exercises in leadership.”

Bay at Yachats

Yachats Bay in the afternoon light.

Fortunately, before I returned several people had written letters to the editor stating their objections to this type of thinking. There are more comments than I’ve quoted here, but suffice it to say I have nothing to add to these excellent remarks and am extremely relieved that many Oregonians seem to have much more common sense, and be much more knowledgeable, than The Oregonian’s editorial board:

Jim Sjulin wrote, “Justified by its belief that we in the Portland area can’t do anything about anyway, the board has not only communicated total disinterest in what is probably the most significant issue of our time, it has also reinforced the idea of non-participation – the lowest and most inexcusable level of democracy.  Don’t discuss and work on climate change issues, don’t advocate for change, don’t protest and don’t vote; just site there and wonder why somebody doesn’t do something.  This is easily the most cynical position that I have ever seen expressed by The Oregonian editorial board.”  (Letters to the Editor, Dec. 28)

Scott Mandel wrote, “First of all, it requires incredible myopia to believe that, due to its population, the U.S. contributes to only 4.4 percent of the problem, or that it is not a major player in helping find solutions.  Secondly, it is those people or places that seemingly have the least power to effect change that need to speak the loudest because they are harmed the most by the arrogance of the majority of those in power.” (Letters to the Editor, Dec. 28)

Wayne P. Stewart wrote, “…Well, how about considering what climate change will mean to Oregonians?

  • As more carbon dioxide is absorbed by the oceans, acidity will increase, causing reproductive problems for shellfish – leading to fewer fishing jobs;
  • Sea level rise will increase coastal erosion and flooding of low-lying areas, causing the loss of private property and increase public maintenance costs; (Images of Oregon coastal erosion here: http://www.bing.com/images/search?q=oregon+coastal+erosion&qpvt=Oregon+coastal+erosion&FORM=IGRE)
  • Warming ocean waters will lead to more intense storms, causing damage to public and private infrastructure;
  • Rising temperatures will reduce snowpack, meaning less summer irrigation water for farmers, the loss of skiing and recreation jobs, and less suitable water conditions for salmon and trout;
  • Increase forest fire intensity and fire season duration will mean increase firefighting costs and the loss of forestry jobs;  (http://photos.oregonlive.com/oregonian/2014/07/buzzard_complex_of_fire_east_o.html)
  • Rising temperatures will encourage forest and agricultural pests and invasive species to move northward, increasing containment costs and leading to reduced others.” (Letters to the Editor, Dec. 28, 2014)

There’s not much to add – except to wonder how on earth The Oregonian’s editorial board has managed to live on another planet while we’re seeing such rapid – and local – changes on this one.


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