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There are too many wars; there have always been too many wars. But the courage, grit and determination of our troops can never be recognized enough.  We remember and mourn those we have lost – the lost love, the lost potential, the lost dreams, the lost opportunities.  We owe these service members; we owe their memories, we owe their families.

I wrote that paragraph this morning for my Facebook page and for the Military Vaccine Resource Directory site, which I manage.  I have nevver understood war, ever. I have never understood why people killing each other is seen as a solution to problems. But I do know how well trained our service members are, and the courage with which they face unimaginable evil and violence. I do know the love and loyalty they develop for each other, and how this actually helps them come home again. Just not always.

I’m also well acquainted with what it is to be the wife or the mom at home while a loved one is deployed. There is an underlying fear that never leaves. There is the dreaded, imagined image of two uniformed officers appearing at the front door. And for too many, there is the heartbreaking mCasket2oment of sitting at the graveside while another univormed officer hands you a folded American flag.     

What we lose in war is far more than the individuals lost; it is also the permanent, scarring grief left behind for their families. It is the children growing up without a Dad or Mom. It is the spouse who suddenly becomes a single parent. It is the best friend who wonders if he or she could have done anything at all to help.

And for survivors, it is the risk of suicide once they come home. They are casualties of war as well, and for too long, they have been invisible to us. They survived, so we think; they should be fine. Never assume that. If you know a returned veteran, reach out. Find a way to help. We all owe our servicemembers more than we will ever be able to replay.

 

 

 

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About buzz words

As a general rule, I hate buzzwords.  The most recent one I hate is “authentic.” It’s nearly as bad as “organic,” the meaning of which has become distorted beyond repair.

The rise of “authentic” – an “authentic” message, an “authentic” story, and so forth – seems to have come into popular use about the same time as the cries of “Fake media!” have emanated from the White House. I suppose it must reflect a desire to express what is real, to get at the heart of a matter, to write and received messages which are verifiable, real and true. My dictionary defines “authentic” this way:

Authentic: 1. Authoritative; reliable 2. Of undisputed origin; genuine

Synonyms: True, verifiable, real, legitimate, authorized, accredited

One problem is that if you have to keep saying you send out only authentic messages, that you only speak with authenticity, then you begin to sound as inauthentic as they come. It comes under the heading of Shakespeare’s “The lady doth protest too much, me thinks,” in the play Hamlet, which, in our common usage, has come to indicate someone who does not speak with sincerity. In my own way of putting it, you have to turn over every stone – i.e., anytime someone makes continuous, repeated statements about who they are, what they believe or what principles they uphold, turn over that stone and look on the other side. It then no longer surprises you when the man who rants against homosexuals turns out to have a male lover; when the woman who decries abortion has had one herself; when the coach entrusted with inspiring and training children turns out to be abusing them.

If you are going to use the word “authentic” or any of its synonyms, you’d do well to use it in conjunction with research you have done, or something you’ve observed. Portraying yourself as authentic should be unnecessary. Somewhere in your reputation should be an acknowledgement by other people that you are, indeed, an authentic person – someone whose word is verifiable, someone who is real and genuine.

We stress those things a lot in the field of public relations. Many of us in the field have the initials “APR” after our names, which means that we are Accredited in Public Relations. We have had to pass a grueling test as well as an interview by three judges to earn this distinction. It means we are authenticated in our profession; we’re the real deal, we’re not practicing on a fly-by-night basis.

There’s an old saying in PR that can be applied to anyone, anywhere: Never fall for your own publicity. If you do, you risk losing a strong sense of your own reality, your own authenticity. While it’s good to put your best foot forward, it’s unrealistic to believe that’s the whole story. If you want to be authentic, be like the Velveteen Rabbit – let life rub off the rough edges and stay real.

To the reader: I made these notes when I traveled to Germany, Poland and Latvia with the Missoula (Montana) Mendelssohn Club on their overseas concert tour during the summer of 1989. The tour was part of the club’s tradition regarding Missoula’s International Choral Festival, held every three years, and I was their publicist. The Berlin Wall would come down that November; but at the time of this visit, communism and its rules still prevailed, and reminders of WWII were perhaps more impactful for their stark simplicity. The Mendelssohns experienced extraordinary hospitality – and music – in Poland.

An elderly man mows the weeds between the long rows of barracks. He sits on an old tractor, pulling what looks like an ancient kind of mower attachment. There is no expression on his face.

The old barracks and the guardhouses on this side of the barbed wire are made out of wood, something unusual to see in our brief time in Poland. The barracks are long, low buildings, marching row after row, not even having the decency to sag after all these years.

The main building at the entrance to the camp looks the part: all brick, very much an administration building, very much an entrance guardhouse as well.  It stretches horizontally to either side of the entrance gate, called the “Gate of Death.” The railroad tracks enter the camp through that gate, extending almost a mile toward the back of the property. The length is such that many boxcars could have been accommodated at one time, disgorging hundreds upon hundreds of terrified human beings as if they were cattle entering a slaughterhouse – as, indeed, they were considered to be.

There is no monument at the other end of the tracks. There are not signs anywhere. The camp accepts visitors but resists the trappings of a tourist destination.

Farther back in the camp there are rows of chimneys standing in ancient military precision through the fields, ghosts of buildings long since gone. Utility poles with electric wires run the length of the grounds, and on these wires, birds are singing.

The barbed wire remains, attached at 20- or 30-ft intervals to cements posts. The wire is tapered and curved inward at the top. There are perhaps 12 to 15 strands of barbed wire along the straight shafts of the posts, then four to six more tightly packed strands on the inward curve. Every four posts, there is a light.

It is empty, this camp, but not silent. The mutterings of the tractor and mower can be heard across the grounds. Small piles of hay are heaped in mounds four or five feet high. Workers come along with pitchforks to load the hay into trailers, which are towed away by a truck.

Visitors from our group wander through the compound, talking softly. A small breeze moves through the grass. A haze covers most of the sky, making the sun a pale, dirty yellow which casts no shadows.

Not half a mile away is a major railroad switching yard. Between the yard and the compound, perfectly ordinary Polish houses dot the tree-line country road. A couple of women ride by on bicycles; a tourist bus rumbles by. It does not stop.

At first, the woods at the far end of the compound, beyond the end of the tracks, look inviting and cool in the summer heat. But there in neat, precise German fashion, are the sites of the burning pyres, the gas chambers, and, of course, the sewage and water filtering equipment. It all shows meticulous planning, these 45 years later; everything is orderly, efficient, engineered – planned. All of it planned.

People from our group walk by in clusters of two and three, discussing what they have read or heard until now – and how this building must have been such-and-such, and that site must have been so-and-so. I try to hear the silenced voices but cannot; yet it seems their shadows move through the grass.

Near the entrance, the last load of hay moves out of the gate. We walk back to our buses, discussing other things. A look back at the skeletal buildings, the stillness, the silence. This, too, I think, they have done to Poland. But like birds on the wire, the Poland we have known keeps singing.

 

 

 

I’ve been off this blog for a long time. First, a lot of job and personal changes were distracting; then, I felt completely overwhelmed these last two years with the overload of information we’ve all faced. It’s been hard to sort out my thinking.

But I keep coming back to a core principle: while our methods and means of communication have changed – while the very tone of our communication has changed – I’m not at all sure we’re hard-wired as human beings to change as rapidly. It’s much more difficult these days to think through things carefully, deliberately, strategically; it’s much more difficult to find those sources which you can rely on for valuable perspective. So too often we stop at the headlines; too often we fall for slogans; too often, we go for the most simplistic explanation, disregarding all the grays in a preferred black-and-white scenario; too often,  we give way to the cheapest, easiest kind of emotion that takes no thought, no self-discipline. The easy way out is not as much because we are lazy (though I, for one, often am). The easy way out is a recognition that we can’t adapt readily to the rapidly changing complexities of the world we live in.

We want simple. We want push-button answers. We want to feel safe and secure again, like we belong.

But the answers aren’t there; simplicity isn’t there. So what do we do?

I would suggest that we slow down. Step back from absorbing so much information; winnow things down to what you really need in your life. Take stock of what you most need to do to succeed at your job and in your personal life. Eliminate the superfluous.

Decide on one or two causes you want to focus on during this time of upheaval. For me, there are three major issues: First Amendment rights, the environment, and women’s issues. I donate to some organizations fighting the same battles; and when I can, I take an active role. This summer, due to other obligations, being active has been difficult. But I still have a voice and a conscience, and I can still speak out.

Simplify. Don’t listen to all the voices; they won’t all add to the discussion, they won’t all provide useful information, and too many of them will just clutter up your brain. Take care of your brain, take care of your spirit. Don’t demand of yourself that you acclimate and adjust all at once. There is so much value in walking slowly.

 

 

Excellent article on the value we provide to our younger colleagues – and the value they provide to us:

https://www.forbes.com/sites/nextavenue/2017/12/03/heres-why-companies-should-hire-a-modern-elder/#2b12a1c47b57

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.

 

 

 

 

 

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.