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The question mark on the title is because I’m hoping it’s not true.

I frequently told my students that the first thing any dictator (or would-be dictator) does is go after the intellectuals, destroy knowledge, and prohibit free speech. I told them their education was the one single thing that no one, ever, could take away from them. I was thinking of Mao Zedong’s “Cultural Revolution” years ago in China when I said that, and of similar instances in other countries throughout history. I  didn’t have a sense then of anything similar happening in this country, but I wanted the students to know the difference between what they had available here and what people in some other countries – such as North Korea today – didn’t have.

And yet in such a very short span of time, here we are – running into it headlong.

Those of you who have followed me on Facebook or even Twitter are probably aware that I’m avidly following the journey of Paul Salopek as he walks “Out of Eden.”  As National Geographic describes his journey on that same page, “Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and National Geographic Fellow Paul Salopek is retracing our ancestors’ ancient migration on foot out of Africa and across the globe. His 21,000-mile, multiyear odyssey began in Ethiopia—our evolutionary “Eden”—in January 2013 and will end at the tip of South America.”

Mr. Salopek often combines observations about our current western world with thoughts about the history of the places he walks. In the December 2017 issue of National Geographic, he write Part Six of his story, reporting from the Old Silk Road, a network of routes stretching from Kazakhstan to Uzbekistan and beyond in Central Asia. The Old Silk Road routes are ancient, used 2500 years ago for trade between China and the Roman Empire.

He is walking through a Muslim world, and writes, “The paradox of Islamic extremism today if that the historical caliphate that jihadists so desperately wish to resurrect would likely repel them. At the height of its power in the Middle Ages, the Muslim world flourished precisely because it wasn’t fundamentalist – it was tolerant, open, inquiring. The freewheeling and polyglot spirit of the Silk Road was one key to this. ‘Central Asia was a major center of learning at that time,’ says Shakzukhmilzzo Ismailov, a historian at the Khorezm Mamun Academy museum in Uzbekistan. ‘We produced many world-class scientists.’

“…But my interest in the region stretches back earlier – to a period spanning the eights to the 15th centuries,” Salopek writes. “At that time Silk Road entrepôts (ports, cities or trading posts) …rivaled or even outstripped Europe in intellectual achievement. This was the Arab Golden Age of science, art and culture…”

He goes on to describe specific achievements of the era, saying “The Silk Road’s noisy bazaars of alien products and ideas – Renaissance European, ancient Greek, Indian, Persian, Chinese – stoked this intellectual explosion. So did a new school of religious thought…which injected rationalism and logic into religious doctrine, fanning scientific inquiry. ‘There were practical reasons too,’ Gavkhar Jurdieva, an architect in Khiwa, tells me. ‘To survive in this desert you need farming. And to farm, you need to understand irrigation, and that requires engineering. We used math to feed ourselves.'”

Ultimately, Salopek writes, “It wouldn’t hold. Weakened by dynastic struggles,the caliphate began to crack at the edges. A purifying movement called Asharism took root against ‘outside elements’ of thought: This smothered most fields of scholarly research beyond religious study. The Mongols sacked Baghdad in 1258. The lights of a gilded era blinked out.”

As he watches modern-day tourists in the region, Salopek continues, “…I think about how few people in the world today know how a light bulb works. About the willful ignorance behind climate change denial. About the closing of the public imagination in the West and the resurgence of populism, of tribal nativism. It is an instructive time to be rambling the Silk Road.”

He wonders if, as Kublai Khan once asked of Marco Polo, our journey takes place only in the past.

 

 

 

 

 

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Notes about ethics

Sept. 18, 2017

September is ethics months, and as with most of you, I feel a bit overwhelmed by the ethical problems we are seeing all around us. I wasn’t sure where to begin with an article about our ethical challenges and responsibilities as public relations professionals. Talking about the small challenges we face each day – Should I fudge on my time sheet to look better? Should I score points with the client by saying yes, I can pretty well guarantee this social media campaign will work? – seemed a little like rehashing old territory. We’re people who have signed onto our PRSA Code of Ethics. We’re supposed to know this stuff.

But what happens when you become aware of wrongdoing in your own organization or in a client’s organization? Should we blow the whistle, and if so, how and when? What will be the consequences to us personally?

Two good friends and colleagues, Dr. Cary Greenwood, APR, Fellow PRSA, and Mary Beth West, APR, Fellow PRSA, have written about what it is to be a whistleblower, and when to quit the battle.  Greenwood conducted a study titled “Whistleblowing in the Fortune 1000: What practitioners told us about wrongdoing in corporations in a pilot study” which appeared in the Public Relations Review (Volume 41, Issue 4, November 2015, Pages 490-500). She found that just under half, about 44 percent, of the respondents knew about some kind of wrongdoing, and of those, about two-thirds had reported it. The greater majority, 81 percent, said that reporting wrongdoing was not part of their job.  Nearly a third of those who reported and were identified suffered some form of retaliation.

West wrote on her blog, just this week, about her own experience as a whistleblower. In “What is your Whistleblower Threshold?” she described her experience in an unexpected role herself that she self-describes as investigative journalist and activist. I remember following her tale earlier in the year on her Facebook posts. She was, as always, clear and articulate, but had a seemingly intractable foe. She ended her post saying, “Survival mentality dictates that you cut your losses when you finally decide you’ve stopped caring – or the thing you cared so much about which prompted your whistleblowing is no longer worth caring about to the extent of the pain being inflicted by those who feel threatened by your challenges to their actions, over an organization that they – after all – largely control.”

Because her battle caused her enormous personal and professional pain, I can understand that last paragraph.  There comes a time when you wonder if the battle is still worth it.

There are also some battles that go on for years.  Since 2000, I’ve been involved in a whistleblowing effort as part of a protest against the military’s mandatory, experimental anthrax vaccine. I got involved when my son, then in the Air Force, was required to take the first three shots in the series, saying back then that they’d “just done that to the wrong mother’s son.” During the first few hours that I researched the vaccine online, I wasn’t alarmed. There were lots of reassurances that it was both safe and effective. Eventually, however, the truth began to surface. The Pentagon had asked the manufacturer of the vaccine which veterinarians use for cows and sheep – called the cutaneous or “of the skin” anthrax vaccine – to reconfigure it so that it could be used against aerosolized, or air-borne anthrax. The manufacturer did. The Pentagon used the new vaccine – without researching it, although in all fairness you can’t exactly spray people with anthrax and hope the vaccine works – and without testing or licensing it. It was experimental, and mandatory. To make matters worse, the manufacturer falsified the expiration dates on some lots of the vaccine; used vaccine that had become contaminated; and changed it once again without notifying the FDA.

I went to D.C. to hear testimonies before Congress from service members and veterans. With the help of the pilots leading the effort and many professionals lending their services pro bono, I formed a national group. I went back to D.C. twice to walk the halls of Congress, educating any staffer who would listen about the dangers of the anthrax vaccine. I wrote a “friend of the court” brief for a lawsuit. For a time, the vaccine was declared illegal. That lasted about two years. Then the FDA declared it to be legal, and that was that. These days, the number of shots has been reduced, the vaccine is supposedly safer, and I’m not aware of the same number of complaints. I’m mostly aware of people wanting to know how they can refuse the vaccine (if ordered to take it, they can’t.).

One of my fondest memories is from a radio interview I gave shortly after 9/11. If you’ll recall, there were post office workers in D.C. who received anthrax spores in the mail, and thanks partly to some members of our group, they had the sense to refuse the vaccine and insist on antibiotics instead (Cipro was the recommended drug at the time.). The radio station was somewhere in Ohio, and the announcer asked me if I wouldn’t want to take the vaccine if there were a threat of aerosolized anthrax. “No,” I said.  “You can actually recover from anthrax, but you can’t recover from the effects of the anthrax vaccine.” First time I’ve ever heard “dead air” for about a full minute on the radio.

My son is long since out of the military, and is just fine. He’s a pilot now, flying cargo for a company in Utah. As for me, I run a website at http://mvrd.wordpress.com , which is being redone. I discovered I can’t emotionally handle talking every day to the veterans whose health has been severely compromised or even destroyed by the vaccine. I was constantly crying for their suffering and for their country’s betrayal (this also happened in Australia and Great Britain, just FYI). But because a lot of those men and women became good friends, and because I’ve watched these last 17 years as they’ve sometimes made progress, and sometime just endured, I keep the website going.

Three of the major things I’ve learned from my own activist years are these:

1.      If you repeat something often enough and long enough, people really do believe it.  No one checks the source documents anymore. The fight against half-truths, lies, alternative facts and fake news can never be dropped.

2.      If something affects people personally, they will speak out and often take action. It was because of my son that I got involved. It was because of her own battle that Mary Beth West spoke out this week. It was because she had been a whistleblower and suffered retaliation herself that Cary Greenwood changed the course of her career and became a nationally renown researcher and instructor in the field.

3.      Even if you don’t have a job at stake, which I didn’t, there can still be negative consequences to your activism. I had stepped out as a leader on the national stage concerning the anthrax issue, and as such was subjected to both intense criticism and conspiracy theories concerning my involvement – even from members of my own group. There was an incredibly painful transition when I stepped down. A lot of people who were furious that the group was disbanding had no interest in helping to run it or to contribute financially. Others were sure I had some evil intent, and spread lies all over the internet. The pain lingered for some time. Still, years later when the FDA (or someone) floated a proposal to test the anthrax vaccine on civilian children, there was a tremendous outcry and the attempt was shut down. I like to think we had something to do with that.

It is tempting and easy to turn a blind eye and say, “whistleblowing isn’t part of my job.” I’m sorry, but it is. If we are to be leaders in our profession — and I would submit that every single member of PRSA is a leader precisely because of our Code of Ethics — then we must speak out about ethics, and speak out constantly, all the time. A fear of retaliation is a genuine fear: we can’t afford to lose a job, to risk not supporting our family, to see our own reputations trashed. But sometimes we must take up the battle. If we turn a blind eye, we are part of the problem. Be authentic; be fair; be accurate; be transparent. And most of all, be ethical.

The following remarks are in answer to a conversation thread on Facebook the last few days. Part of the argument was about whether Democrats or Republicans were more responsible for trying to limit freedom of speech and freedom of the press. These remarks don’t cover all exceptions to freedom of speech by any means, but are just brief remarks that come into play when discussing what tragically and outrageously happened in Charlottesville this past week.

bill-of-rghts-scrollFirst Amendment rights and restrictions:  Charlottesville, and the broader view

The First Amendment of the United States Constitution: 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.

I’ve often said this is the amendment for which I would give my life, and I still feel that way. Regarding what happened in Charlottesville, the first thing to note is “the right of the people peaceably to assemble.”

But the second thing to note is one of the exceptions to free speech:  “You can’t make offensive remarks or personal insults that would immediately lead to a fight. You also can’t threaten violence to a specific person unless you’re making an obvious exaggeration (for instance, “I’m going to kill my opponent at the polls”). Finally, you can’t knowingly say things that cause severe emotional distress or incite others to ‘immediate lawless action.”

In 1951, the Supreme Court concluded in Dennis v. United States that the First Amendment doesn’t protect the speech of people plotting to overthrow the government.”  From http://www.saturdayeveningpost.com/2017/03/21/culture/politics/6-exceptions-to-freedom-of-speech.html

In my opinion, the Nazi flags and symbols, and the blatant racism in Charlottesville absolutely incited others to “immediate lawless action,” and caused them severe Freedom Of Speech Quotes. QuotesGramemotional distress. That’s not to say the violence was right – only to say that the violation of freedom of speech falls squarely into the above description. The demonstrators knew they were inciting violence. They were quite sure of what they were doing. They were quite sure of the outraged reaction they would get. The entire episode hearkens back to the civil rights era of the 1950s and the 1960s, but not in a good way: it’s as if we remember nothing and have learned nothing. We obviously have a lot of work to do.

President Trump’s response is not something I’m going to address here. The last two sentences of the preceding paragraph will have to do.

Freedom of the press and freedom of speech are not partisan issues. They are written into the Constitution and interpreted by the courts. There are certain aspects of the law that ARE under threat, and that all of us should know:

Libel and Slander    The following information is taken directly from the textbook, Public Relations – A Values-Driven Approach, Fifth Edition, by David W. Guth and Charles Marsh, 2012, Pearson Education, Inc. Page numbers are included as applicable.

Libel has to do with the written word; slander, with the spoken word.

These are the four criteria that have to be met when proving in a court of law that libel or slander has occurred:

  1. Defamation – any communication that unfairly injures (“defames”) a person’s reputation and/or ability to maintain social contacts.  A truthful statement cannot be considered defamatory; and you cannot defame a dead person.
  2. Publication – the communication of a defamatory statement to a third party.  That includes emails and other forms of transmission; the word “publication” here isn’t limited to the press or print publication.
  3. Identification: the defamatory statement has to have identified the person or the group of people, or has to provide enough information that the person or group could be identified.
  4. Damage – There has to be evidence that the person or organization suffered injury or damage as a result of the defamation, whether it be financial injury or the loss of social esteem.
  5. Fault – A plaintiff (the person filing a claim in court that he or she has been libeled) – can demonstrate fault by proving that the defamatory statement is untrue.  A truthful statement is NOT defamatory.   (Paraphrased from pages 472-473, Public Relations, A Values-Driven Approach.)

shutterstock_292409498 There is a further burden of proof if a person is a public figure or a public official.  A public official is someone who has been elected or appointed to office who has significant public responsibility and is engaged in policy making. A public figure is someone who has widespread notoriety or has injected himself or herself into a public controversy in an attempt to influence its outcome.

Public officials and public figures have to prove that there was actual malice, defined as “knowing falsehood or a reckless disregard for the truth.” (New York Times v. Sullivan) (Paraphrased from pages 473-474, Public Relations, A Values-Driven Approach.)

 In my opinion, this additional burden of proof is a good thing. If you are elected or appointed to public office, or if you inject yourself into a public controversy in an attempt to influence the outcome, you have to be able to withstand criticism, like it or not, and you have to proof that the criticism was done in “knowing or reckless disregard for the truth” if you want to legally object to it.

The threat to this law is Donald J. Trump. He wants to loosen libel and slander laws because, as we all know, he cannot stand criticism. He doesn’t realize that this law protects the public from the government controlling speech – as it should.  Info here: http://dailycaller.com/2017/03/30/donald-trump-wants-to-change-libel-laws-to-combat-negative-new-york-times-coverage/

Freedom of the Press:  No, the press isn’t perfect; news outlets aren’t perfect. Too often the line is blurred between information and entertainment; too often what is supposed to be a news article is actually an opinion piece that belongs on the op-ed page or in the opinion section, clearly labeled. Too often, advertisers have held sway over the financial stability of a news outlet.

But just as often, investigative reporting has played its traditional and critical role in holding the government accountable and helping to right wrongs in our society. The following is from https://www.aclu.org/issues/free-speech/freedom-press

“The press was to serve the governed, not the governors.” —U.S. Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black in New York Times Co. v. United States (1971)

“The freedom of the press, protected by the First Amendment, is critical to a democracy in which the government is accountable to the people. A free media functions as a watchdog that can investigate and report on government wrongdoing. It is also a vibrant marketplace of ideas, a vehicle for ordinary citizens to express themselves and gain exposure to a wide range of information and opinions.“

We all kshutterstock_423746350now the myriad complications to the press caused by social media, and the changes in communication brought on by so many cyberspace options.

However, once again, the main threat to our necessary freedom of the press is Donald J. Trump with his constant attacks on the press as fake news. His attacks are combined with his own proliferation of lies and half-truths that he uses to present an alternate reality which caters to people’s fears and biases.  One opinion on this is here: http://thehill.com/blogs/pundits-blog/the-administration/346492-the-trumpian-threat-to-freedom-of-the-press

Again, to repeat what Justice Hugo Black said, the press is supposed to serve the governed. That’s you and me. Despite all the problems with the press and the media, their rightful role is to serve as the “Fourth Estate,” the watchdog of the government. One of the good things about our current political climate is that many reporters are doing just that, no matter who likes it – or does not.

 

“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:

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/08/does-the-first-amendment-protect-deliberate-lies/496004/

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

kathy

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.