Jan. 6, 2016
From time to time I’ve mentioned that practicing good public relations is basically practicing good manners. You wouldn’t treat 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.
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 that 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 something 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.