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.

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.