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Weinstein Backlash: “Bro” Culture & The Workplace

My column this week in The Knoxville News Sentinel on the Harvey Weinstein sexual-harassment allegations backlash was actually written last week, prior to Kevin Spacey’s response to a younger fellow actor alleging that Spacey had assaulted him some 30 years ago. It was also written prior to NBC News’ dismissal announcement of political journalist Mark Halperin, on allegations dating back 10 to 20 years ago.

The Weinstein Effect is casting quite a wake, indeed.  And it appears far from over.

My KNS column focused on the impact of “bro” culture in the workplace – the phenomenon that’s been widely written about and seems pervasive in certain industries, such as entertainment, media, technology, sports and, as I pointed out in more detail, in the advertising agency world.

Certainly it’s unfair to paint every company within an entire industry with the same brush, and it isn’t my intention to do so.

However, some stereotypes exist for a reason, and the interesting thing is that it appears we are about to crest a new wave of societal non-acceptance for a very long-standing status quo wherein pushing sexual advances on other people – whether physically or verbally, either overtly or through a series of under-the-radar maneuvers – could be tolerated.

  • Looking the other way
  • Victim / accuser as “the problem”
  • No accountability
  • Hear no evil. See no evil. Speak no evil.
  • Institutional complicities

 

These aspects of the long-standing status quo are also being turned on their head.  And in many cases, this accountability sea-change is a momentous and positive improvement that may likely prevent many future harassment incidents and all-out assaults.

My concern, however, is for the counter-backlash that might result with an opposite swing of the pendulum, of “guilty until proven innocent.”  As much as I am an advocate for victims, there is such a thing as due process, and in my view, it should be engaged.

To that point, all employers should make sure that they have a policy and a due-process complaint / investigation procedure in place and well-communicated to staff.  The Society for Human Resource Management offers a template on its website.

Brand reputation for any entity is predicated heavily on a company’s treatment of human beings, both within and external to the organization. As this issue continues to unfold in the public spotlight, it’s important to have management conversations that establish clarity of the details (policies / procedures) and of the bigger picture (organizational culture).

 

 

Richard Edelman’s #PRethics “Crazy Quilt” Comment & Patching Up Trust

Ask anyone in public relations today, and the sentiment is clear: the intense river-current of distrust that we’re swimming against daily in the business of strategic communications is unlike any we’ve witnessed.

And it shows no sign of abating – only intensifying.

Let me give you a snapshot (and bear in mind that all of this stuff is happening concurrently) . . .

Opinion Versus Fact

  • Old reality: National news media – while far from perfect – based its news-gathering and reporting more so on fact-based information from vetted sources than on the overt, editorialized political positions of gatekeeper elites.
  • New reality: Traditional, national news outlets are becoming closer aligned as nearly-branded and unabashed press rooms for specific political parties.

Musical Chairs Versus Trust-Building

  • Ancient reality: News media and their trained teams of reporters (and editors who held them accountable) produced narratives about relevant issues and our employers / clients, which public relations professionals could seek to influence for fair, balanced and positive inclusion by providing accurate, insightful and newsworthy content . . .  earning trust over time with news outlets predicated on resourcefulness, responsiveness and consistent accuracy.
  • New reality: Content that qualifies as “news” in the public’s eye has been turned on its head, with content generated by trained journalists constituting a declining share of news voice, in the wake of social media outlets like Facebook, Twitter and many others serving as de facto news outlets with practically no standards or protocols or even working definitions of the same.
  • Other new reality: Points of contact at news outlets change on a constant basis, so public relations professionals are always starting over from square one with points of contact, with trusted news-media relationships now largely a thing of the past.

Cheap Versus Good

  • Old reality: The public knew and usually could rely on sources of its information because those who operated as journalists (credentialed by their graduation from an accredited journalism school that infused basic tenants such as accuracy) generally adhered to strong source-attribution standards, vetting for source credibility, anecdotal substantiations via multiple sources, and screening for conflicts of interest, among other standard practices.
  • New reality: Not only do the new de facto social media platforms operating as news outlets offer practically no standards or protocols for “news” being reported, the traditional and more trusted newsrooms of old have arguably devolved their news-gathering and reporting functions into speed-over-accuracy, quantity-over-quality, snippets-over-in-depth, and, very often, overt-pay-for-play-not-only-allowed-but-encouraged environments that have thrown public trust under the bus.

Disruption Versus Derailment

  • Old reality: While all kinds of media and societal disruptions might take place at any given time, certain stalwart values and institutions of domestic, national and international spokesmanship advanced by the world leader’s highest elected office-holder held fast to specific ideals (such as spirit, tone, empathy and higher order) emblematic of “the American way.”
  • New reality: Many of the current political messages emanating from Washington, D.C.
  • Sad reality: For all the good they might do or have potential to do, both our nation’s president and our national news media are each their own worst enemies. And neither of them know it.

…And We Didn’t Even Get a Lousy T-Shirt 

  • Old reality: PR folks are seen as hacks, flacks and the biggest media problem who can’t find their way to a clear industry voice to advocate for their own value with Rand McNally and a flashlight.
  • New reality: PR folks are seen as hacks, flacks and the biggest media problem who can’t find their way to a clear industry voice to advocate for their own value with GPS and a self-driving vehicle.
  • Toughest reality: Despite the overwhelming value we provide to our employers, clients and to society at-large, the public relations profession maintains no active PR program for itself, and only through decisive leadership and a funded campaign for a consistent industry voice will we find some reputational boots made for walking.

 

Such old/new realities are, in fact, only the tip of the iceberg of what we’re dealing with out there, and it’s in that context that one of my profession’s most notable business leaders, Edelman CEO Richard Edelman addressed the National Press Club in recent days, on the topic “The Battleground is Trust.”

I strongly urge all business leaders and certainly everyone working in the public relations profession to read Mr. Edelman’s remarks. They are insightful and offer key tenets of what makes public relations such a vital part of organizational success.

However, Mr. Edelman referenced with criticism what he called a “crazy quilt” of ethics codes in the profession, which apparently, according to his view, is to blame for the state of affairs in public trust nowadays.

While I value and admire Mr. Edelman’s excellent grasp of the challenges at hand and fully embrace his proposal for some of the solutions (such as “no corporate speak”), there is one realization that seems to allude us all:

We have to stop presuming that the world’s trust problems are being stoked primarily by people who care even remotely about the concept of trust.

Presuming otherwise, it seems, Mr. Edelman proposed a “PR Compact,” of “four simple but powerful principles,” boiled down to accuracy, transparency, free/open idea exchange, and online ethics training.

While nothing is inherently wrong with Mr. Edelman’s notion of a PR Compact, my question is this: Why should we reinvent the wheel when the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) crafted many years ago what is arguably the most inclusive, insightful, relevant and evergreen code of both ethics and professional practices for the larger profession, which goes far beyond any online ethics training and calls upon all PRSA-affiliated professionals to sign on a dotted line of individual compliance?

In his remarks, Mr. Edelman referred to the PR Council’s ethics code and the Page Society’s ethics code – both of which are fine, but frankly, aren’t any more expansive as the PRSA Code of Ethics, in my view.

I note that Edelman possesses its own Code of Ethics document, which, incidentally, is absolutely outstanding, in my view.  If the Edelman management team feels that its own agency ethics code is stronger than PRSA’s (and they rightfully might), then why would Edelman – in its obvious and quite admirable interest of wishing to advance ethics at a higher level profession-wide – not engage PRSA’s Board of Ethics & Professional Standards to infuse even greater rigor within PRSA’s ethics code for a better industry standard?

Other questions: Why is Mr. Edelman not a member of PRSA, particularly given that his father, the late and highly esteemed Daniel J. Edelman, APR, Fellow PRSA, was awarded PRSA’s Gold Anvil in 1999 and clearly valued what the Society represented? Where is the disconnect? Why, of Edelman’s nearly 6,000 employees in 65 offices worldwide, are less than 35 employees PRSA-affiliated?

Advancing a Higher Good in the Profession

I ask these questions because – for the same reasons many companies join a Chamber of Commerce in order to advance the larger economic development interests of a community from an “all ships rise” perspective – it’s tantamount to the profession’s resources for as many practicing public relations professionals as possible to be member-affiliated with the largest public relations organization in the world . . . and the one whose ethics code is the most widely known and utilized.

Not to make excuses for PRSA (and PRSA’s leadership should step up to speak for itself on this matter), but the widespread abandonment from membership affiliation in PRSA by the world’s largest public relations firms can be pointed to as part of the reason why PRSA struggles to achieve a critical mass of resources needed to effect deeper, lasting, positive change on behalf of the profession at-large.

What About the Larger Agency Community?

So to spread the wealth of friendly criticism here, this isn’t just an Edelman issue. Among about 10 other PR firm global leaders, collectively with tens of thousands of employees, fewer than 200 employees are PRSA-member-affiliated. Widespread support of the larger profession?  It’s a question worth examining.

After all, if the largest public relations service firms can’t see their way clearly to support their profession’s largest society of colleagues (nearly all of whom are themselves passionate about ethics and professional practices), then Mr. Edelman, et al., maybe what we’re looking at here are the chickens coming home to roost.

As a company, Edelman may have a bone to pick with PRSA that’s fueling its distance.  Maybe all of the agencies do.  If so, PRSA should engage on the issues at hand and work toward solutions.

In the larger conversation about how our profession serves as part of the solution instead of part of the problem, I can only say to Mr. Edelman and to all agency leaders and corporate, governmental and non-profit communications team leaders:

This profession is what we make it to be, and relative to the “crazy quilt” of ethics and setting a higher bar, our focus must be on those whom we alone can control: ourselves.

PRSA affiliation and direct forms of support may not be the only part of a proposed PR Compact, but shouldn’t it be part of it?

Why “It Isn’t Personal” No Longer Translates

Peeling back the meanings and motivations behind the commonly used phases, “It isn’t personal” and “Why are you taking it so personally?”, I’m reminded of two movies where the quote stands out most.

The older and far more prominent one – “The Godfather” (1972) – attributes the quote directly to the crime family soon-to-be-boss Michael Corleone, who, in justifying his plan to murder a corrupt police chief, says, “It’s not personal. It’s strictly business.

And so the saying became engrained in popular culture 45 years ago – and since picked up for convenience’s sake by people from all walks of life as a sort of Teflon of moral deflection.

It essentially connotes that one is free of moral responsibility in hurting someone – even to destroy their world, so to speak – as long as it’s for a business purpose (the mechanics of making a dollar) and not personal ones (the way they look, talk, walk, dress, etc., . . . or any inherently personal trait irrelevant to the “business purpose”).

It’s an invisible armor carried into all kinds of uncomfortable workplace scenarios: the boss who’s letting an employee go, the key staff member announcing a resignation, the selection team choosing one service provider or new-hire over another, a conglomerate buying out a company and then “rightsizing” the staff.

Someone is going to have hurt feelings. But get over it. It’s not personal – it’s just business. We’ve all been there, right?  But in truth, how many of us didn’t feel at least some serious tinges of personal anxiety, stress or even hurt, in these “just business” scenarios?

Which leads me to my next movie example, “You’ve Got Mail” (1998) . . . the Meg Ryan / Tom Hanks movie that hit cineplexes nearly 20 years ago (Mercy! Has it been that long?!), when America Online (AOL) was among the most prominent online communities, and those commonplace aol.com e-mail accounts happily intoned, “You’ve got mail!” (hyperlinked here, since there’s an entire younger generation who’ve likely never heard it, much less the sound of a dial-up).

But I digress.

My favorite quote from the movie was from the Meg Ryan character (Kathleen), whose small, family-owned corner bookshop is put out of business by Tom Hank’s character (Joe), the head of a large, corporate, impersonal chain that moves in down the block.

Joe (commenting on his company putting Kathleen’s shop out of business): “It wasn’t personal.”

 Kathleen: “What is that supposed to mean?!  I’m so sick of that!  All that means, is that it wasn’t personal to you.  But it was personal to me. It’s personal to a lot of people. What’s so wrong with being personal, anyway? 

 Joe: “Ummm….”

 Kathleen: “For whatever else anything is, it ought to begin by being personal.”

That’s some amazing dialogue, written by the late Nora Ephron and her sister Delia.

And how prescient for a movie in 1998, for what was to come these decades past . . . with social media and online interactions blurring and even eradicating the lines of demarcation for personal meaning, feeling and impact to others, in things we say and do, both within and outside the online sphere.

It is personal – all of it.  It’s simpler to understand as an all-or-nothing. And it’s ALL.

There can be personal impact in any business decision, just as there are personal ramifications to all big decisions in life.

In cases when we have to voice a grievance in order to right what we feel is a wrong, both sides of the interaction – the perceived transgressor and the aggrieved – have to come to the table knowing that the situation likely has personal baggage attached for both sides.

After all, when we question someone else’s ideas, judgment, quality of product / service, past behaviors, relationships, statements or misstatements . . . all of these things can threaten the value and meaning of that person’s very identity. It doesn’t get much more personal than that.

Conversely, when we as potential transgressors tell someone who’s aggrieved that they are wrong in their grievance, that we don’t acknowledge it as having any validity, or, essentially, that we don’t care, it can also have a personal impact – even a de-humanizing effect.  And that’s horribly personal, too.

Of course, we can make an already-personal situation more so by interjecting criticisms that are off-topic, irrelevant to the grievance at hand, or of a more personal-attack nature, like, “Oh yeah??? . . . well, you’re ugly and your momma dresses you funny,” to recount the schoolyard jibes of yesteryear.

With some level of maturity, we can discern the lines of fair game and fair play, but, alas, sometimes we don’t.  To make matters more complicated, one person’s idea of a relevant, non-personal criticism can turn another person’s most closely held sense of self upside-down.

What are those business-versus-personal boundaries for you? How do you seek to avoid threats to others’ personal boundaries when voicing a legitimate “business” issue or criticism?

Maryville-to-Townsend Greenway Initiative Launches Social Media-Based Photo Contest: #LoveMyGreenway

Greenways add a scenic element to communities, providing miles of trail for biking, walking and running. While greenways have recreational benefits, they also provide economic impact and can drive tourism and create desirability for those looking to relocate to the area.

This year, we began working with a council of local organizations striving to promote and raise funds for the Marvyille-to-Townsend Greenway—a 14-mile greenway expansion initiative housed through the Blount Partnership / Blount Chamber of Commerce that will ultimately connect Maryville to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Community engagement and support of the greenway is critical, so we’ve enjoyed working on a social media photo contest launching today.

Community members can submit photos through the official contest page, showing how they or their friends and family together enjoy the current Blount Greenway system, using the hashtag, #LoveMyGreenway. Prompts will include requests for photos featuring participants’ favorite greenway running or walking routes, children in Halloween costumes on the greenways in October, greenway users’ favorite views along the trails and more.

Each week, photo submissions from the previous week will be chosen to receive prizes, such as gift cards from area organizations like Cycology Bicycles and Little River Outfitters or tickets to the Grains and Grits Festival in November. One of these winners will be chosen by a random drawing and the other will be chosen based on community votes received on the official contest page. Participants can encourage friends and family members to visit the official contest page and vote for their photo submission.

Contest winners will have their photos shared by the Greenway to the Smokies’ social media outlets as well as be notified via email.

The official contest page is located at lovemygreenway.com. Greenway to the Smokies can be found on Facebook as “Greenway to the Smokies” and on Twitter and Instagram as @smokiesgreenway.

 

#PRethics Month: Lies of Commission, Omission & Looking the Other Way

In life as well as in the business of strategic communications, there can exist lies of commission as well as lies of omission.

When is it alright or justified to “look the other way” when you clearly observe ethical missteps occurring in your own organization or in an organization in which you are a stakeholder, such as a member or a volunteer leader, akin to the saying about an ostrich with its head in the sand?

It can be a critical question of self-protection / self-preservation – and not just a matter of protecting an organization from itself when it’s acting in unethical or highly questionable ways.

Should you become a whistleblower?  What are the risks and costs to you personally?

Among its numerous Ethical Standards Advisories (ESAs), the Public Relations Society of America’s (PRSA) Board of Ethics and Professional Standards (BEPS) includes a special ESA on “Looking the Other Way,” written by two well-known and highly respected colleagues, James E. Lukaszewski, ABC, APR, Fellow PRSA, and Thomas Eppes, APR, Fellow PRSA, via Professional Standards Advisory PS- 15 (August 2010).

In it, BEPS addresses the issue that “all too frequently, when questionable behaviors occur, the alarm fails to be sounded at an early stage for reasons ranging from fear to self-consciousness, to wanting to keep the boss happy, to ‘it’s just not my concern.’ This behavior is looking the other way and it can be unethical.”

This ESA – only about four pages long but chock-full of important insight – is a critical read for anyone in business, government, the non-profit sector and, most certainly, in the public relations profession.

It begs the question of us all: If we simply avoid a lie of commission by not making specific verbal statements of known untruth or inaccuracy, are we “off the hook” from an ethics standpoint?

Do we get a free pass if, instead, we choose to overlook a misdeed and simply “move on” via a “code of silence?”

By not reporting, pointing out or even uttering a word of what’s been witnessed, are the misdeed’s impact and resulting outcomes not our responsibility?

I know the short answer to that question. It involves the words “no” and “hell” . . . and not in that order.

BEPS’s “Looking the Other Way” ESA outlines numerous scenarios that routinely can occur that hinder people’s ability to get at the truth and remain faithful to it.

One situation, “The Stone Wall,” is described by Eppes and Lukaszewski as follows:

“This is the corporate communication practice of initially denying events to delay consequences, stalling when asked for information, delivering angry and emotion-driven counter attacks against those who criticize or who might criticize, or simply remaining silent. It is the tendency to minimize any serious situation, put a good face or no face on something and hold off until forced to do something.” 

The “Science of People” blog that I link to above has some interesting insights that also ring true.

In tackling overt statements that you think are lies, the author, Vanessa Van Edwards, says:

“For these lies to succeed, you have to be willing to believe the lie. It is something that has to sound plausible. The first step to tackling these lies is the determination not to be lied to. This will make you much more skeptical about what people tell you and lead you to double-check information. Another way to expose these lies is by asking someone about the assumed lie later on. If he or she suddenly tells you a different story, then this probably means that there is something else going on – requiring a deeper investigation of what the truth really is.”

All PRSA-affiliated public relations professionals should know that truth-telling is a professional imperative in the work we do for employers or clients – as well as other professional, civic and service organizations of which we’re a part.

As it turns out, acting in service to the truth can be a difficult and rather complicated endeavor.

In the “fight or flight” paradigm, human nature often drives us toward flight in seeking to escape the inherent dangers of policies, communications and patterns of behavior committed by others that we know are wrong — and that we know hold consequences, if found out . . . in which we ourselves don’t care to be swept into the fallout.

But when we take flight, we must ask ourselves, who are we really serving?

Aren’t more people being continuously hurt or dis-served by our looking the other way, than helped?  And don’t we – ultimately – risk counting ourselves (and our reputations) among those casualties?

This PRSA #PRethics Month, how else can we work purposefully to avoid “looking the other way” situations?

#PRethics Month: What is Your Whistleblower Threshold?

Since affiliating with the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) through its student organization, PRSSA, when I was 19 years old, I’ve taken the organization’s ethical standards to heart . . . not only about how public relations professionals should communicate, but also in relation to how management teams should operate, make decisions and treat its stakeholders.

Among some core ethical realities that PRSA has emphasized over the years:

  1. Nothing bolsters trust-building like openness, transparency and meaningful responsiveness, particularly to an organization’s most involved stakeholders.
  2. Conversely, nothing destroys trust like the opposite behaviors.
  3. Stakeholder engagement is the brass ring – because it means people feel vested in your brand and their personal relationship with it. They care.
  4. If an organization turns against its own engaged stakeholders who seek accurate information from organizational leadership, it nearly always means there’s reason for everyone to worry.
  5. The more difficult that doing the right thing becomes, the more important are both the work at hand and the ultimate outcome, no matter the obstacles.

I’ve had an interesting experience this year.

For the first time in my career, I’ve been a whistleblower.  And not in an on-the-periphery kind of way or in the context of advising a client, where I was getting paid while seeking to right a wrong or to correct the record on their behalf.

No, this experience has resembled more of a hybrid between investigative journalist / volunteer activist, including:

  • encountering an alarming issue with an organization I’ve been affiliated with for many years, posing significant, precedent-setting implications;
  • voicing my concerns in detail to leadership;
  • receiving a dismissive response in reply;
  • then later, stumbling upon more (and more) troubling facts as well as major discrepancies between leadership statements and clear evidence to the contrary;
  • voicing these additional concerns in detail to leadership;
  • followed by another brush-off and, ultimately, the withdrawal of communication from leadership altogether;
  • followed by leadership’s deletion from public view critical documents that disclose leadership decision-making;
  • and in the process of my seeking further resolution and clarity, ultimately becoming the target of an “ignore and isolate the ‘complainer’” strategy;
  • which finally devolved into unfounded criticisms by leadership about me at a personal level, which, to Point #5 above, only motivated me further to fight the fire causing all the smoke.

My goodness. What drama.

And why? Because, I’m one of those “engaged stakeholders.” That “brass ring” person . . . but now, because of just how engaged I’ve chosen (and have the capacity) to be, I’m strangely demonized by leadership who otherwise constantly urges stakeholders to be more engaged – irony of ironies. Engagement appears to be welcomed only as long as it doesn’t question authority.

I’m also a business owner in the public relations profession, and as in all business dealings, reputation is everything. Smear campaigns pose genuine risks.

So it begs the questions:

  • At what point does one cut her losses?
  • What is my whistleblower threshold that I’m not willing to hyperextend?
  • Do core principles allow us to draw such a line in the sand?

 

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.

You know . . . “lost cause” territory, á la, “You can’t fight City Hall.”

September is #PRethics month, sponsored by the Public Relations Society of America’s (PRSA) Board of Ethics and Professional Standards.

As PRSA celebrates its 70th year – and as Assembly delegates prepare to convene on October 7, 2017, in Boston, to help set the course for PRSA’s future – I am inspired by our community of colleagues who not only voice verbal support of ethical, transparent and accountable conduct, but also stick their necks out during the course of their careers (and risk personal criticisms) to ensure the same.

They are the reason I love PRSA so much and feel inspired by the principles of the Society, in service to the highest ideals of our larger profession. Since I was a 19-year-old student, these colleagues are the ones who taught me that lost causes most often result when enough of us permit them to be.

What is your whistleblower threshold?

PRSA National and the Case of the Missing Minutes

 

This title sounds like a revival of “Nancy Drew” or “The Hardy Boys” (which shows my age), but it’s not.

Instead, it’s a real-life mystery on the national stage of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA).

As a past national leader of PRSA shared with me just this week upon learning of recent news, it’s a situation wherein, “In the day, leaders like Pat Jackson and Jack Felton and others would have railed against this publicly.”

I’m talking about organizational transparency and ethics, and the news now circulating to PRSA leaders and members nationwide of the PRSA national board‘s decision to no longer post board meeting minutes online for member access / review – and the implications of this decision.

While the PRSA board minutes can hardly be considered every public relations professional’s must-have for light reading on a cross-continental flight, the issue matters.

Big time.

And here’s why . . .

PRSA’s ideal for ethics and professional excellence drives the core of why people choose membership affiliation — and that ideal is far larger and further rooted than the presence of any specific leader or group of leaders.

However, when the stewardship of PRSA’s brand identity/ideal falls into poor leadership decision-making, the impact is felt by all and poses danger to the foundation of the Society — particularly if left unchecked.

This disturbing development of the meeting minutes – to which the PRSA Executive Board has thus far stood silent in addressing beyond my last e-mail correspondence from the PRSA National Secretary on Aug. 4, 2017 (copied in full, below) – comes amid PRSA National’s roll-out of its proposed bylaw amendments, among which is a proposal to “Entrust the Board of Director(s) to revise bylaws” . . . which would allow the PRSA board virtual carte-blanche authority to change any and all PRSA national bylaws at-will.

And now, with no quarterly board meeting minutes posted throughout the course of a given year – and with all minutes of this calendar year now wiped off the PRSA website from view – the PRSA board is appearing to seek . . . quite unabashedly . . . a new role as the near-alpha and omega of Society bylaw creation, interpretation and enforcement, while the PRSA Assembly delegation and members at-large are left completely in the dark as to board goings-on, hidden from prying eyes that would otherwise stand equipped to demand accountability.

It merits reference to the PRSA Code of Ethics, that this maneuver – and, I fully believe this decision is nothing short of that word as an appropriate descriptor – flies in the face of multiple Code provisions:

FREE FLOW OF INFORMATION

Core Principle: Protecting and advancing the free flow of accurate and truthful information is essential to serving the public interest and contributing to informed decision making in a democratic society.

Intent:
• To maintain the integrity of relationships with the media, government officials, and the public
• To aid informed decision-making

COMPETITION

Core Principle: Promoting healthy and fair competition among professionals preserves an ethical climate while fostering a robust business environment.
Note: This provision is applicable in that by hiding board meeting minutes, the path for leadership on PRSA’s national board inherently favors current board members or those whom current board members would themselves hand-select, as the lack of meeting minutes disallows other candidates from seeing any glimpse as to the inner-workings of previous board business and the ability to challenge specifics of current decision-making.

Intent:
• To promote respect and fair competition among public relations professionals
• To serve the public interest by providing the widest choice of practitioner options

DISCLOSURE OF INFORMATION

Core Principle: Open communication fosters informed decision making in a democratic society.

Intent:
• To build trust with the public by revealing all information needed for responsible decision making

CONFLICTS OF INTEREST

Core Principle: Avoiding real, potential or perceived conflicts of interest builds the trust of clients, employers, and the publics.

Intent:
• To earn trust and mutual respect with clients or employers
• 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

ENHANCING THE PROFESSION

Core Principle: Public relations professionals work constantly to strengthen the public’s trust in the profession.

Intent:
• To build respect and credibility with the public for the profession of public relations
• To improve, adapt and expand professional practices

I leave you with the correspondence, below, that I had with PRSA’s National Secretary this month, which I’ve shared with leadership groups within the Society, located across the country.

I challenge all 2017 PRSA National Assembly delegates to stay awake at the switch and reject any bylaw amendment that effectively surrenders Assembly delegates’ authority to serve as the last word on bylaw amendment approvals.

And, I challenge our larger membership to question seriously the intent and the judgment of any PRSA national leadership body that would engage in a manner of behavior to expand and leverage its own power at the expense of not only democracy within the Society’s governance structure but also our organizational transparency, credibility and brand reputation, both internally and externally.

DOCUMENTATION OF CORRESPONDENCE / #PRSAmissingMinutes

From: Mary Beth West
Sent: Monday, August 14, 2017 11:27 AM
To: ‘Garland Stansell’
Subject: RE: board minutes

Hi Garland:

Please forgive my late reply. Thanks again for having been so responsive to my questions in our last correspondence about the board meeting minutes.

If I may, I’d like to share some resulting concerns that I have, to the news you’ve shared of the PRSA national board meeting minutes no longer being accessible online via the PRSA website, or, to my understanding here, no longer being accessible by PRSA members in any manner or form.

  • First, I acknowledge that PRSA has the right to create policies/procedures as it meets the needs of the organization, as long as they are in compliance with the bylaws and with applicable government laws/regulations, I presume. And, there is no stipulation in the PRSA bylaws that requires public posting of national board meeting minutes, as far as I can tell (it may have never dawned on past Assemblies that such a bylaw would be required, given the long-standing tradition of minutes being accessible). Further, the deadline to propose a bylaw change in order to prevent this decision is now past, correct (as of the first week of August, as timing would have it, interestingly), so any such matter relative to a bylaw change would need to be revisited in 2018.
  • Secondly, I strongly urge PRSA leadership to consider the negative optics of what it’s doing here as a policy position, versus what it’s been advocating for decades to all of organizational, governmental and corporate America (and beyond).
  • There is certainly a perceived hypocrisy issue at hand. Out of one side of its mouth, PRSA has always urged transparency as both a professional-conduct and organizational-management imperative. But now, out of the other side of its mouth, PRSA now defends its withholding basic information from the membership as to the goings-on in its own leadership and governance, 11 months out of the year (minus the Assembly minutes, which you say is the only document of PRSA governance that is to be made available to members going forward).

 This decision just doesn’t square with the expectation that PRSA has set in complying with its own transparency ethic, and I fear that current leadership is setting PRSA up for reputational damage and loss of trust among its most vested and engaged members nationwide, through this decision.
 Incidentally, when I search on PRSA’s new website for “Assembly minutes” I can’t seem to locate any actual Assembly minutes documents. When/where are the Assembly minutes on the website (link, please?), and from how many years back is PRSA planning to post them?

o Clearly, the board is utilizing Executive Sessions to discuss matters of a true confidential nature – and those details are not reflected in the minutes, which is proper. But it seems a massive overstep to throw out member access entirely to see and understand what’s going on with our organization, including committee reports (which are really some of the most needed and valuable parts of the board minutes, since the new website offers zero insight as to what various PRSA committees are doing and how PRSA members can become engaged with these national volunteer activities).

  • In addition, I’m deeply troubled that this action is being taken by the board “under the radar,” with no notification to the membership – or, in the very least, to the Assembly delegation, only a few months prior to the Assembly itself. Nothing about this omission seems proper and, to the contrary, it seems rather premeditated in seeking to hide something (which surely isn’t the case, although it would be most helpful to understand how this appearance should not be construed as such).
  • To that point, I have the January and April 2017 national board meeting minutes (attached); in full disclosure, I downloaded them back in June when they were posted by PRSA online (before they were then abruptly taken down in July).

o Per these meeting minutes, what exactly is the board trying to avoid disclosing under a “confidentiality” premise?

That membership is down? . . . (board meeting minutes from Feb. 6, 2016, reported that “Membership at year-end 2015 was 21,905,” while the April 2017 minutes indicated that as of March 31 of this year membership was 21,201, reflecting a loss of 704 members over 15 months, which, if counting those memberships at normal dues rates and not counting any additional ancillary income such as initiation fee or professional development spends, reflects a loss of roughly $179,520 in dues revenue alone to the organization).
That the website is posing problems? . . . (I have yet to speak to a PRSA colleague who has had any form of positive user experience with the new website).
That there is no discernible movement on Advocacy strategies that were promised some six months ago? . . . (My concerns on this topic have been covered in past memos to national board leadership, as you know).
That the PRSA Governance Committee, in its April 2017 board report (as reflected in attached minutes), recommended some seven items including elimination of geographic representation for board directors, and, regarding PRSA bylaw amendments recommended by the PRSA board itself, that the board supports a new requirement of a two-thirds majority by the Assembly to overturn a recommended bylaw amendment by the board? (as opposed to requiring a two-thirds vote by Assembly delegates to vote for adoption of an amendment, which is how the bylaws read now) . . . These governance proposals appear more than a bit alarming, particularly in light of how these board minutes are now being withheld from Assembly delegate or general membership view.

Truthfully, I don’t see any matters in the minutes that should not be subject to member and Assembly delegate review and inquiry. Yes, PRSA may be encountering challenges of various sorts, but seeking to conceal them from our larger leadership body (if that’s the intent here, which surely it isn’t) is not the answer toward resolving them. It also seems that – given the exceptional level of activity being undertaken (apparently) by the Governance Committee, that those reports should be available for leader / member review at incremental points during each calendar year.

In short, this decision to withhold board meeting minutes is unprecedented, to my knowledge (or, perhaps I should contact past national officers to get that verified), but either way, it’s unacceptable to me as a career-long PRSA member and past national board member of this organization, and I can’t believe it will be roundly acceptable to this year’s Assembly delegation.

Thanks for hearing my concerns.

Please know that I will be sharing these concerns with other PRSA leaders to gather feedback / guidance; please alert me today by 6 p.m. Eastern, if you have any issues with my forwarding this correspondence to others for consideration and review. If there is any new information that can be shared later with me on this topic as matters hopefully evolve in a different direction, I would welcome it.

Best, MB

From: Garland Stansell 
Sent: Friday, August 04, 2017 3:11 PM
To: Mary Beth West
Cc: Garland Stansell
Subject: RE: board minutes

Hi Mary Beth,

I did double check and the PnPs do contain a section regarding the confidentiality of board meetings and associated information. This is not new to the PnPs. The minutes from the Delegate/Leadership Assembly however are to be posted to the website. I am in the process of insuring that those are posted and available. However, due to the confidentiality of much of the discussion during the board meetings, those minutes are not to be posted publicly. The PnPs are also not shared since they are relating to Operating Procedures for the Board and PRSA staff. I am not sure why they were posted publicly before but those postings were in violation of our Policies and Procedures. To answer your question regarding wider notification to the membership, changes to the PnPs are not communicated to the broader membership for the same reasons they are not shared or posted.

Regards,
Garland

From: Mary Beth West 
Sent: Thursday, August 03, 2017 4:25 PM
To: Garland Stansell
Subject: RE: board minutes

Thanks, Garland. Would it be possible for me to see the full written document on policies and procedures on that topic?

This is really new information, and it’s rather concerning that this new observation is being done without wider notification to the membership, since it’s a vast departure from earlier common practice. Will there be any notification to the membership, or would a member just need to inquire as I’m doing?

As you know, PRSA has been a most vocal proponent of organizational transparency for many years . . . in fact, decades. This action doesn’t sit well.

Any further background information or guidance you can provide would be most helpful, and I do appreciate your time and responsiveness.

Thanks again, MB

From: Garland Stansell 
Sent: Thursday, August 03, 2017 4:58 PM
To: Mary Beth West
Cc: Garland Stansell
Subject: RE: board minutes

Hi Mary Beth,

Thank you for your message. The minutes beyond the January 2017 meeting will not be posted publicly. Posting the minutes to viewed by anyone beyond the PRSA Board of Directors was in violation of our Policies and Procedures (PnPs). This is covered in the PnPs under the section relating to the confidentiality of meetings which states that all discussions held at meetings of the Board of Directors shall be confidential. In posting previous minutes to the website we were out of compliance with our own PnPs.

All the best,
Garland

From: Mary Beth West 
Sent: Thursday, August 03, 2017 9:44 AM
To: Garland Stansell
Subject: board minutes

Hi Garland:

Do we know when the board meeting minutes from this year (beyond the January meeting) will be posted?

http://apps.prsa.org/AboutPRSA/Governance/BoardMinutes/

Thanks so much. -MB

An excerpt of the April 2017 board meeting minutes, which were posted in the public domain on PRSA’s website in spring 2017 but were since taken down by order of the PRSA board

Gatlinburg Hotel Company Urges Community Solidarity Supporting Sevier Tourism

Gatlinburg, Tenn. – One of Sevier County’s largest hotel management companies issued a call for more productive community dialogue and solidarity to support local tourism today, on the heels of a press conference staged at the company’s Courtyard by Marriott Downtown Gatlinburg property by a community-protest group, on Friday, July 28, 2017.

The incident involved a Gatlinburg wildfire-response protest group, which has grown vocal in recent months, issuing a wide range of complaints and taking to social media with negative comments about local community and business leaders – including an active campaign telling social media followers to post negative online comments and reviews of Sevier County hotels, as well as to boycott them.

The group reserved meeting space at Courtyard by Marriott Downtown Gatlinburg the morning of Friday, July 28 – the same day as its planned press conference – amid confusion as to the group’s identity and purposes, as reported by hotel officials.

According to President / CEO Logan Coykendall of Hospitality Solutions, Inc., a hotel development and management company, and an investor in the Courtyard by Marriott Downtown Gatlinburg as well as six other Sevier County hotels, the company would have politely declined the protest group’s request for meeting space, had it been apparent the identity of the group and the purpose of its press event.

“We think it’s important to set the record straight,” Coykendall said.

“We respect citizens’ rights to seek information and be informed as our region continues to manage the aftermath of the November wildfires,” he said. “However, when protesters are overtly negative with increasingly personal attacks of elected leaders and a string of threats made both verbally and in writing against local tourism businesses, it’s counterproductive to the community’s ability to recover. It’s for these reasons that Hospitality Solutions and our hotel properties respectfully reserve the right not to serve as host to their platform.”

Miscommunication About Group’s Identity

Based on information provided by the protest group, hotel employees believed that the event would be a Tennessee Emergency Management Agency (TEMA)-sponsored press conference, not knowing the actual identity of the group and its purposes for its press conference event.

“There was a miscommunication when a leader of the group initially booked the space at the hotel the morning of July 28,” Coykendall said. “This miscommunication resulted in our staff erroneously believing that this

event was a TEMA press conference, for purposes of providing public information. The true identity of the group conducting the press conference only came to light once the actual press conference event began.”

Refusal to Leave Premises and Intentional Use of Police Presence for Media Hype

Upon discovering the group’s identity and purpose, Courtyard management staff asked the protest group’s organizers to discontinue their press conference and assured the group that it would not be charged for the space. A leader of the group then refused the hotel management’s request and urged hotel management to call the police to force the group to vacate, because news media on site attending the press event would “love that even more.”

Hotel Space Never Billed or Paid in Advance

The protest group was never billed on July 28 and never paid for the event space in advance, which contradicts widespread claims by the protest group that it paid for the meeting space prior to the event.

“The room was never formally contracted, given the hurried pace of when the initial request was made for the event space, which was the same morning as the press conference,” said Davy Thomas, chief operating officer and partner at Hospitality Solutions. “As a result of our staff seeking to accommodate a same-day turnaround time on the event-space request, billing had not occurred, nor had a payment been received.”

“Interestingly, a leader of the protest group returned to the property and later contacted our team with an e-mail time-stamped at 11:35 p.m. Eastern the night of July 28 – a matter of hours after the incident – indicating he planned to send us payment for the event space, which he insisted that we accept and apply to his Marriott Rewards account,” Thomas said. “However, this payment will not be accepted, given the circumstances as they unfolded on July 28.”

Productive Dialogue and Support Critical for Advancing Sevier County Tourism

Hospitality Solutions urges Sevier County community citizens, elected officials and business leaders to work together in a unified way to support a fast-paced recovery for local tourism.

“As a community, we’ve been through an event unlike any other this past year,” Coykendall said. “There will be some moments of disagreement in our community, given the complex circumstances of this tragedy. However, we will seriously stall our own chances of economic recovery if we let in-fighting dominate our mindset and allow unproductive dialogues to distract us from the serious business we have at hand. We must completely focus on creating great experiences that will keep our visitors coming back, in support of our economic future as a community.”

About Hospitality Solutions:

Hospitality Solutions, Inc., formed in 2004, has become an industry leader through its commitment to service excellence and quantifiable results in revenue management, operations efficiency and quality of life. Hospitality Solutions currently manages properties in the Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge area.

 

Hospitality Solutions, Inc., is a client of Mary Beth West Communications, LLC.  For more information, please contact Mary Beth West, mb@marybethwest.com.

Open Letter to Public Relations Trades Challenging USC Annenberg PR Survey

To media colleagues who specialize in covering the public relations and marketing communications professions and academic realms, please review the USC Annenberg survey and its June 20, 2017, report critical of the White House communications team. As author of the column in The Wall Street Journal challenging USC Annenberg’s survey methodology and report, below is additional background that public relations sector media might wish to collect in their analysis of this case.

Inherent political imbalance evident

As with any study of this nature, survey sampling methodology is critical, if the results are to be seen as untainted by bias and statistically valid, related to a larger pool (in this case, the views and opinions of the public relations profession, of which USC Annenberg stated / strongly implied in its widely distributed news release that its results were indicative “across the political spectrum,” despite also being a “convenience sample,” as noted in its boiler plate).

Relative to political balance, the USC Annenberg news release stated that “Of the 900 survey respondents, 55.3% identified themselves as liberal, 29.6% identified themselves as moderate and 15.1% identified themselves as conservative” (bold/italics inserted). 

Yet another survey – this one by Gallup — reported in January 2017 that the overall U.S. population self-identifies as 36 percent conservative, 34 percent moderate and 25 percent liberal. While the public relations profession may skew in political affiliation in one direction or the other, for USC Annenberg to position its survey results as indicative of sentiments “across the political spectrum” despite this noted chasm in representation presents serious concerns about inherent political imbalance.

Sloppy, quick, easy, cheap methodology evident on multiple fronts

The USC Annenberg study posed many other problems, which I voiced in a detailed e-mail to USC Annenberg via its Center for Public Relations on June 6 while the survey was still being fielded and a full two weeks prior to the Center issuing its survey news release.

First, USC Annenberg appeared to fail in controlling the authenticity and balance of its respondent sample – which resulted by 1) creating an open-access online survey (the link to which, by the way, remains publicly open as of this writing); 2) utilizing a digital survey platform that appeared to allow survey respondents to complete the survey multiple times from the same digital device (I was alerted to this issue after my June 6 correspondence with the Center); 3) pushing the survey out on open social media channels viewable by any individuals outside the public relations profession; and 4) requesting partner organizations to push the survey on their social media without input as to call-to-action messages that would be used by those third parties to ensure political neutrality.

CONCLUSIONS IN SEARCH OF DATA? . . . This May 31, 2017, posting on the CommPro website by USC Annenberg made an open pitch for public relations professionals to take the “quick and easy” survey and predicted that “the answers will be interesting and provocative.” The messaging also promised, “Once you take the survey, you will see why we anticipate there will be a lot of interest from the media.”

Secondly, the survey instrument itself contained a series of leading / loaded questions.

The survey’s questions appeared to presume guilt of the White House communications team across a host of negatively worded criteria, such as whether team members “purposefully lie” and “distort the truth.”

The survey asked for ratings of White House communications staff performance (even getting personal with individual staffers put forth to be rated by name — Sean Spicer, Kellyanne Conway, et al.) based on criteria that no one outside of the inner circle of the actual White House team would have any way of objectively knowing . . . such as whether team members “do their best” or “work hard” in specific job functions — as if the throngs of those working in public relations at-large can accurately assess these people’s work ethic.

As I communicated to USC Annenberg on June 6, the nature of these questions undermines our profession as a whole, to think that we – or anyone – can be in a solid position to judge these individuals when we have not the slightest first-hand knowledge of what their daily, granular-level efforts involve behind the scenes, amid complicated factors.

For anyone to make an evaluation of these individuals’ job performance with such myopic information upon which to base it – largely limited to what’s seen in front of a press room podium, or just as likely, as lampooned on a “Saturday Night Live” skit – does not just demean those working in the White House . . . it demeans what all of us do, by extension . . . if we all are to be judged by such non-substantive or glancing observations (the larger implication being that our profession’s work is not worthy or even indicative of any greater value than what one might perceive of one standing in front of a media briefing room microphone).

It’s my position that a strong communications ethic originates and sustains itself with leadership at the top of the organization, via the CEO.

In my personal view, President Trump’s communications style / tactics and the position in which he routinely places his communications team are worthy of scrutiny and criticism. Further, anyone collecting a government-issued paycheck, particularly in such an extremely visible role, should fully expect to find their work product under a microscope.  However, as my WSJ column stated, it’s best for anyone who wishes to issue that criticism — particularly from a center of study sited at a ranked school for communication and journalism — to do so on documented facts and cases in point . . . not by creating and issuing data positioned as the voice of a profession without a basis in universally accepted, transparent academic methodology.

In my WSJ column, I also disclosed that I lean conservatively, so that readers could judge my assessments within that context. USC Annenberg offered no such disclosures with its news release on its survey – the insinuation being that this institution’s political stance and intentions are purely non-partisan and/or apolitical, a notion belied with the approach to this survey.

Application of the PRSA Code of Ethics

To the subject of ethics, I also point to the PRSA Code of Ethics and urge that we as a profession bear in mind specific Code provisions that may be relevant to this case:

Free Flow of Information Provision:

A (PRSA) member shall:

  • Preserve the integrity of the process of communication.
  • Be honest and accurate in all communications.

Disclosure of Information Provision:

A (PRSA) member shall:

  • Act promptly to correct erroneous communications for which the member is responsible.
  • Investigate the truthfulness and accuracy of information released on behalf of those represented.
  • Reveal the sponsors for causes and interests represented.
  • Avoid deceptive practices.

Conflicts of Interest Provision:

A (PRSA) member shall:

  • Avoid actions and circumstances that may appear to compromise good business judgment or create a conflict between personal and professional interests.

Enhancing the Profession Provision:

A (PRSA) member shall:

  • Acknowledge that there is an obligation to protect and enhance the profession.
  • Keep informed and educated about practices in the profession to ensure ethical conduct.
  • Decline representation of clients or organizations that urge or require actions contrary to this Code.
  • Report practices that fail to comply with the Code, whether committed by PRSA members or not, to the appropriate authority.

 

In closing, because I’m not a research expert or scholar, it would be appropriate for our sector’s media outlets to look to credentialed, reputable centers of academic research for further comment on what types of methodologies would have been appropriate for the type of assessment that USC Annenberg attempted to undertake. I would be keenly interested to know which academic institutions would go on the record to embrace USC Annenberg’s methodological model.

Respectfully, Mary Beth West

PR Mentoring: You Gain What You Give

The PRSA Volunteer Chapter honored me immensely this month at its annual awards event with the Lorna Norwood Excellence in Mentorship Award.

Lorna Norwood, who tragically passed away four-and-a-half years ago, served our local PRSA chapter for years as treasurer and as a deeply committed colleague.  Receiving an award in her name had me more than a little choked up that evening.

With Lorna’s career example in mind, this honor reminds me of several important mentoring fundamentals:

Our Profession Needs More People Mentoring with Purpose.

Public relations is one of those professions where experience-informed judgment calls have to be made every day.

After all, we in public relations deal in a marketplace of human diversity, perceptions, emotions, influences and many other brand-relationship drivers that are in no way driven by hard-and-fast, unchanging variables or formulaic solutions.

By comparison, there are specific principles guiding accounting decisions.  There are few if any “gray answers” in mathematics.  Engineers and scientists also deal in absolutes and cause/effect based on laws of the universe.  In the legal realm, precedents of earlier judicial decisions form a generally steadfast basis for current applications of legal counsel.

Apart from truth-telling and PRSA’s Code of Ethics as universal guide stars for success, public relations is no such animal. The situational complexities that create PR challenges — coupled with human reactions and the myriad factors that drive human communications, opinion-making and resulting reactionary behaviors — all comprise a mish-mash of dynamics that can change like the wind.

In short, until you’ve amassed significant experience on your own, over years and even decades – and even in spite of lengthy experience – public relations can be immensely difficult terrain to navigate.

We need our community of colleagues’ help toward reaching out a hand to others . . . putting forth best practices, encouraging principles-driven decision-making, discouraging short-sighted shooting from the hip, and patting others on the back for a job well-done in the face of major challenges.

These are the roles that mentors help fill, and each of us can participate, just as Lorna did.

Mentorship Drives Stronger Quality Ethics in Public Relations.

Research as well as human nature shows time and again that decisions made with the counsel of people we trust are more well-informed – and, we tend to make better decisions when we are holding ourselves accountable to the judgment of someone else whom we personally value, during the decision-making process and in the instant of making the actual decision itself.

Ethical judgment calls abound in day-to-day public relations practice.  Decisions that are made away from the mass-media glare can easily be called into serious question later when their impacts are suddenly and widely felt – including impacts that were unintended and unforeseen.

Our acumen toward thinking three steps ahead as to what those impacts could be and how they will be perceived by diverse audiences ultimately determines just how successful we as professionals will be in this field.

Good decisions can certainly be made on one’s own.  But even good decisions can improve vastly in detail and scope if vetted with a mentor who has faced similar challenges in the past and has the battle scars of having made only good – but not great – decisions prior.

Mentoring Others Provides Mutual Learning.

As I now find myself at mid-career and no longer in the young, up-and-coming generation, I’m finding it more and more important to learn how those who are new in the field and how those who are the emerging leaders think – and what some of their common bases are for values-informed decision-making.

No person – and no single generation – should be painted with one broad brush-stroke descriptor, despite news media’s obsession with doing just that.

By serving as a mentor to others, we can learn not only about our differences but why those differences exist.  The “why” part of that answer very often demonstrates that the root causes for our differences don’t equate to one person (or one generation) being “right” and the other being “wrong.”  We have to understand each other’s reality first.

Mentors typically offer a broader reality informed by more life stages, many more challenging experiences by sheer virtue of more years lived, and all the associated outcomes and consequences resulting from them.

But protégés can also offer fresh perspectives. Their thinking might be unencumbered, for example, by their mentor’s types of war wounds of having been burned by factors that today may no longer play the role that they once did.

Having empathy for one another — like Lorna exhibited in her interactions with and mentoring of others — turns mentoring into true colleague- and friend-building.  These are the relationships that last for years, even decades — and their impacts can be felt long after we are gone . . . and ultimately by many other people whom we may never have the chance to meet.  Lorna’s legacy in this regard certainly stands as a testament.

Have you been mentored in the past?  Are you helping mentor others now? 

There are few career experiences that are as mutually rewarding as ultimately participating on both sides of the mentorship coin.  You gain what you give, and sometimes – like me – you might gain far more than you think you deserve. Thank you, Lorna.

 

 

Hickory’s Leadership Sets Example: Details Matter in Achieving Excellence

My team enjoyed assisting our long-time client at Hickory Construction with the company’s 40th anniversary celebration last month.

Viewing some of the terrific photos taken at the event by Knoxville photographer Bryan Allen, I happened upon one of long-time business partners, Burke Pinnell (chairman of Hickory) and Chuck Alexander (Hickory’s former executive vice president / retired).

The picture struck me by just how clear it is that these two men have been not only career-long business partners . . . but also true and steadfast friends.

Given the privilege I’ve had in working with them both, the image also spoke to me regarding just how much one business partner needs to have in common with another in order to realize any level of real success – and certainly success sustained over 40 years.

While two or more business partners can be very different people in all kinds of ways, they must share a strong and interconnected set of values about what they want their company to be and how they want its reputation to be known.

Speaking from the perspective of an outside service provider who has had a chance to closely watch, observe and learn from Hickory’s leadership and team culture – now also led in large part by Burke’s son, Ben, as president of the company – it seems that a common thread of their success has hinged on an envious level of execution of the finer details that distinguish excellence from “good,” “good enough,” and “OK.”

Every company struggles with these issues. Certainly, hiring team members who have the level of commitment and the right skill sets to achieve and sustain excellence is a big part of the challenge for any business.

But let’s face it . . . if a clear mandate isn’t consistently trumpeted by a company’s leadership team about what excellence even means, what it looks like and how it’s experienced through the customer lens, then even a team with the most talented and capable people will likely feel rudderless against the day-to-day upstream current.

I can see Burke’s and Chuck’s fingerprints across the company’s culture and in the literal bricks-and-mortar legacy of the company’s work product.

I can see it in how my firm’s direct client contact at Hickory, Vice President of Marketing John McMillan – a 30-year employee of Hickory himself – manages my team’s own work product and how he helps inspire our “A” game.

I also can see it at my house this summer as Hickory is working on a fairly in-depth kitchen renovation . . . and every day, the level of detail in the built product as well as their management of the job site reflect the ethic that I know Burke and Chuck forged decades ago and worked meticulously to entrench, not just with people but also with processes and – most importantly – culture.

Role models in any business community make such a larger impact than simply through the work of their company or organization alone. They inspire others inside and outside the company. They encourage. They point the way. They create sources of meaning and impact that touch many other lives.

I’m quite lucky to know two such role models in Burke and Chuck, and I’m excited to see the future path unfold for a company that could only have been Hickory-Built.

Kathy Griffin, “True Threat” and What Happens When Free Speech & Artistic License Spawn a Can of Ugly

Two stories this week prompted a revisit on the topic of free speech in our society: the Kathy Griffin beheading of POTUS episode and a story that got lesser media play due to the publicity vacuum of the former . . . the installation of a urinating dog statue next to the “Fearless Girl” sculpture, which, in turn, was installed in recent months facing down the iconic “Charging Bull” statue on Wall Street.

Both incidents spurred immediate and diverse public reactions, as all displays of these various sorts are intended to provoke.

I’ve written on many, many, many past occasions on First Amendment / freedom of speech issues, and for me, the song sheet hasn’t changed exactly . . . but today, it merits some new layers of scrutiny.

For those who think Kathy Griffin should be “punished,” I think we can all rest assured at this juncture that Ms. Griffin would have far preferred 90 days in an L.A. County lock-up to the Squatty Potty-storm she’s inflicted upon herself.

While we can debate the psychology of her apology – and for the record, I think it’s reasonable to infer that the only thing she actually regrets is that her own political tribe has turned against her (at least for the moment) – I would normally support her right to have engaged her artistic license to shoot whatever video might ultimately result in her making a complete social and cultural pariah of herself.

However, the Griffin case is far from “normal.”

I must further conjecture that Ms. Griffin’s apology may have been spurred by outright legal – not commercially or socially driven – fears, namely, that she could be in legal jeopardy on the basis of the “true threat” prohibition of free speech. It’s on this matter that we must defer to a realistic conversation about the consequences of actions taken under the banner of First Amendment presumptions . . . and in this case, what may be Ms. Griffin’s erroneous presumptions.

We have to review what behaviors freedom-of-speech rights do not cover in the United States, which, among the list, includes “true threats” that could potentially incite violence – including particular threats against the sitting U.S. President, bearing in mind that practically every U.S. president gets burned in effigy by protesters somewhere in this country and by those holding viewpoints across the political ideology spectrum.

The First Amendment Center stated nearly 10 years ago that thanks to an abundant lack of clarity from the U.S. Supreme Court, “true-threat jurisprudence remains a muddled mess,” and it’s no clearer today than then, apparently.

I’m not a legal expert of any sort, but it doesn’t take a Juris Doctor degree to know that interpretation of speech is widely subjective and that the purveyance of visual images alone can communicate a host of direct call-to-action messages apart from any kind of verbal ones.

But maybe it takes a public relations degree.

After all, if Ms. Griffin wants to counter that an image of slinging around a gruesomely bloody, decapitated likeness of President Trump doesn’t convey a potential image-driven call-to-action message, she might want to consult those who view the Confederate flag as conveying certain potential messages, symbolism, and yes, even repugnant and criminal calls-to-action – to the extent of a growing nationwide legal ban.

Subjectivity, indeed.

The whole matter illuminates the plain and simple fact that free speech requires all citizens and entities to engage their First Amendment rights with some level of judgment, and, preferably for all concerned, good judgment. Many will agree that no such discernment was exercised by Ms. Griffin — but then, just how many people discern much of anything when their singular focus is to shock and offend? She is paying an enormous and arguably justified price in the court of public opinion; whether she will pay within the court of the U.S. legal system, it’s doubtful but may yet be determined.

And in other news . . .

The only comment I’ll extend on the Wall Street “Pissing Pug” fiasco is the aspect to the story that The Washington Post revealed . . . that “Arturo Di Modica, (‘Charging Bull’)’s creator, told the Associated Press last month that he considers ‘Fearless Girl’ an ‘advertising trick’ that alters the creative message of his legendary work by implying that the two statues are locked in a conflicted faceoff,” with Di Modica now filing suit against the City of New York claiming the addition of “Fearless Girl” to “Charging Bull”‘s artistic space violates his rights of expression under copyright law.

In effect, the artistic creator of “Pug” was inflicting a quid-pro-quo on the creator (and apparent Girl-Power advertising campaign) behind “Fearless Girl” because of the manner in which “Girl” allegedly violates the original expression intended by “Charging Bull.”  So there’s a lot more to that story than the initial headline would reveal.

And it’s yet another example of how we have to apply complex scrutiny to cases when free speech and artistic license collide.

In my view, one person’s “rights” should not infringe on the rights of others – such as others’ ability to express themselves unfettered (as in Di Modica’s case) or to live in freedom from threats of physical violence.

“Morning Jo(k)e”: Does Scarborough / Brzezinski Romance Reveal Basis for Show’s Political Imbalance?

Between my husband and three young daughters, nothing spurs my household’s collective moans louder than my weekday “Morning Joe” habit.

Six a.m. Eastern, and amid the early-hour chaos, if I’m in possession of the television remote, this MSNBC cable-ratings juggernaut is on in my den . . . and has been for the better part of the past decade.

My husband Charles and I are both conservatives, yet I’m the one who tends to gravitate to the program.

For whatever reason, the show’s overwhelming political bent, which nowadays nearly always runs counter to Charles’ and my view of the world, doesn’t put me in a bad mood to start my day. Hearing alternate points of view represents – for me – a great exercise in political-discourse participation, with the acknowledgment that there has been little two-way “discourse” for me in my role as a mere viewer all these years.

But today, I think I’ll finally do some talking of my own.

It was interesting to learn this month of confirmation that Joe Scarborough, the program’s host and the former Congressman (R-Fla.), and his co-host for the past 10 years, Mika Brzezinski, a former news anchor for CBS, announced their engagement.

I use the word “confirmation,” as there had been media speculation (dubious online reports) of an off-camera romantic relationship for some time.

When it comes to their personal lives, I wish Mr. Scarborough and Ms. Brzezinski peace and happiness in their personal path together, the details of which are admittedly no one’s business.

The matter that’s entirely valid for public debate, however, is the integrity and truth-in-advertising of “Morning Joe” as a public affairs opinion-editorial product offering anything even hinting at political balance, by virtue of Scarborough’s background.

In that regard, the engagement announcement was quite revealing, although the jig was up some years prior.

You see, I am among an unknown number of long-time conservative viewers who have felt that any consistent conservative viewpoint on the program – the flag for which was ostensibly to be carried by Mr. Scarborough, given his prior credentials – has been virtually abandoned in favor of the ideology for which MSNBC is now so universally known and to which the future Mrs. Scarborough has arguably secured the role of patron saint.

In the early days of the program, it seemed that Mr. Scarborough could be relied upon to voice quite articulately and even passionately a fairly strong and consistent conservative position.  His participation in this manner on the program that bears his name was what drew me to it years ago.

I found in recent years, however, and particularly in this last presidential election cycle and its aftermath, that what prompted my continued viewership of “Morning Joe” was both the spectacle and (now confirmed) speculation that something . . . but something . . . was skewing Mr. Scarborough’s willingness or ability (or both) to serve as this voice.

Looking at the past election cycle, I could often understand – in all fairness – many of Mr. Scarborough’s admonitions against the Republican Party and some Republican presidential candidates, given many of the remarks and revelations on the campaign trail. I’ve never expected him to tow the line blindly to any single agenda.

However, I started observing on a regular basis over these recent years that there were just too many obvious missed opportunities for Mr. Scarborough to advocate for at least the rudimentary conservative platforms on topics like free enterprise, freedom of speech, strength of national defense, enforcement of laws, local control of many domestic issues, etc., . . . opportunities that the Scarborough of a decade ago would likely have never let pass by, particularly in the face of Ms. Brzezinski’s signature yet wholly reiterative brand of liberal analysis – replete with audible sighs, visible eye-rolls and faux deer-in-the-headlights pauses to underscore whatever it is she’s trying to underscore in each and every segment.

And it kept striking me time and again in the past few years in particular. . . What gives with Joe? 

Where’s the push-back?  Where’s the non-withering conservative voice?  What’s more, as Mr. Scarborough is the self-professed overseer of his program and of the choice of guests relative to diversity of thought and political views, what’s with this overwhelmingly ideological slant of both daily panelists and periodic guests that runs so counter to his conservative profile, as it were?

It now seems quite clear what gives, as the crude saying goes about avoiding certain activities in the same place where one eats and Mr. Scarborough’s apparently evolved priorities.  This love match is not of the James Carville / Mary Matalin variety, where both sides retain not only their stalwart views but also their ability to articulate them unabashedly, mano-a-mano, without undue deference to the fact that they are going home together each night.

I don’t want to emasculate the man, but from my political viewpoint, we’ve witnessed a bait-and-switch with no other known culprit. What “Morning Joe” was originally marketed to be – the lone-wolf conservative-headlined show on an otherwise all-liberal network meant to advance an authentic two-sided dialogue on political matters of the day . . . is now a Morning Joke.

Only I’m not laughing, because it’s such a disappointment and missed opportunity that this program has set aside political rigor in favor of a one-political-viewpoint-fits-all mentality that typifies MSNBC and, truthfully, too many of the political-analysis offerings in the larger marketplace.

It will be interesting to see if the dynamic of the program shifts further, as if it has anywhere more leftward to go.

For now, host and co-host are playing it fairly coy and not allowing their recently announced personal plans to be interjected into much, if any, of the daily banter. But for those of us who are long-time viewers, the writing was on the wall quite some time ago.

Open Response to WSMV-TV Channel 4 / Nashville on Handling of Maury County Public Schools and Thomas AMBER Alert Coverage

Statement by Mary Beth West, APR:

In covering the Elizabeth Thomas AMBER Alert (1-800-TBI-FIND), numerous media outlets have asked a wide range of questions of Maury County Public Schools (MCPS) where Miss Thomas attended Culleoka Unit School, regarding Tad Cummins (a former MCPS employee) and issues surrounding Miss Thomas’ alleged abduction.

Quite rightly, news media with a legitimate news-gathering agenda must represent the public’s right to information, an ethic I’ve deeply respected throughout my 20-plus year career in public relations in accordance with the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) Code of Ethics, which includes among its core provisions to communicate accurately, honestly and in a manner that promotes free flow of information in service to “the public interest and contributing to informed decision-making in a democratic society.”

In the past month (starting March 20 and concluding the week of April 3), as a Maury County native and existing public relations service provider via contract with the Maury County Chamber & Economic Alliance, I offered temporary service without contract and without guarantee of compensation in an effort to assist MCPS, which was in the throes of an overwhelming volume of media inquiries received following this AMBER Alert . . . and at a time when the district’s key communications staff leader was unavailable due to a pre-scheduled leave planned months in advance and impossible to reschedule.

During this stated timeframe, the multitude of speculations and inquiries from local as well as national media quickly began dominating a vast share of MCPS administration staff time, which is always at a premium in managing the daily educational needs of 12,700 students, even without such a tragic event having transpired.  What’s more, a large share of media coverage was yielding inaccurate or largely incomplete reports that threatened to undermine the school system in a host of ways — and in many if not all respects, quite unfairly.

My efforts are now under fire with a pointed news segment yesterday attacking me as well as MCPS via Nashville’s NBC affiliate, WSMV-TV Channel 4 . . . only not for the manner in which I communicated or responded to media during this short time duration; instead, for the very fact that a non-staff professional communicator would in any way be involved to assist MCPS with media response during such a critical timeframe – and in response to media misinformation that WSMV itself has been contributing to.

While I support the public’s right to know of any expenditure of taxpayer dollars for any purpose, the badgering nature of this inquiry and refusal to accept repeated, factual responses to it are in keeping with a pattern of openly hostile and contrived attacks against Maury County Public Schools (MCPS) continuously mounted by WSMV in this AMBER Alert case, including but not limited to:

  • Storming onto school property earlier in March with live / rolling cameras in violation of MCPS Policy 1.501 (“Visitors to Schools” per Line 12, “Disrupting or threatening to disrupt school or office operations”) without advance permission or an appointment, appearing to create a purposefully chaotic environment and failing to leave the property until a law enforcement officer was required to physically escort WSMV reporters off the property, which WSMV ensured was captured on their camera to theatrical effect;
  • Erroneously reporting that MCPS had contracted my firm, even after more than one Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request had been accurately responded to by MCPS that no contract was in place and also after I myself had addressed questions to three separate Ch. 4 news reporters/staff members on more than five separate occasions dating back to March 24 – including to reporters Carley Gordon and Kevin Trager – inquiring about my role in temporarily assisting the District with media-response efforts while the key communications staff member with MCPS was unavailable;
  • Purposefully breaking protocols that all other local / Nashville-based media outlets followed at the April 7 open-to-media MCPS policy-review task force meeting and subsequent statement made by MCPS Superintendent Dr. Christopher Marczak, by creating yet another purposefully staged “scene” in going after Dr. Marczak with live cameras following his planned statement, after it had been clearly communicated in writing well in advance to all media that Dr. Marczak would be unable to respond to broadcast Q&A due to the ongoing investigation still in progress (the protocol was respectfully and professionally observed by all other news media);
  • Most disturbingly, diverting appropriate news media attention away from the actual AMBER Alert and search for Miss Thomas in order to lob unsubstantiated and data-refuted accusations at MCPS . . . first, with criticism for not communicating well enough to news media to meet WSMV’s journalistic satisfaction, then in this recent report, an about-face criticism by WSMV that MCPS was investing too much in an effort to respond to WSMV’s own media attacks.

 

The WSMV segment yesterday constituted one of the most egregious grasping-at-straws maneuvers I’ve witnessed in my career, with Kevin Trager seeking to tie a Tennessee Comptroller audit to “budget deficiencies” and – in an extreme overreach – that any work performed by my firm for MCPS (replete with multiple airings of my website head shot as if it were a mug shot) would constitute a case-in-point of financial mismanagement of some-sort.

Among Mr. Trager’s troubling reporting and his defenses of it or lack thereof:

  • In his segment, Mr. Trager only reported that MCPS Board of Education Chair David Bates’ response to WSMV’s questioning of the audit report was that “deficiencies” are “completely unacceptable.” Mr. Trager did NOT include that Chairman Bates’ written response to Mr. Trager also stated, “I am not aware of any basis for your statement that there are ‘ongoing’ budget deficiencies,” and “. . . my understanding that Finding 2016-006 of the Comptroller’s Report does not broadly state that more money was spent than appropriated for the overall budget” – a gross omission of fact as well as context.
  • After viewing Mr. Trager’s segment, in which he erroneously stated that I planned to bill MCPS “for every hour worked,” I sent Mr. Trager an e-mail last night seeking to correct the record as follows: “I indicated on the phone this morning when you called me that I have not confirmed a billing arrangement as such with MCPS. I did not say I planned to bill for every hour worked.  You asked how I charge for my services to clients, and I mentioned more than one method (speaking in generalities). I did not confirm any such method in relation to MCPS.  Do you plan to correct the story?”  I have received no response from Mr. Trager to this question, and the online story remains uncorrected. 
  • Via separate e-mail last night, I asked Mr. Trager, “you’ve avoided my original question to you entirely . . . why are you badgering MCPS about the nature of my assistance to them when this question has been answered fully, accurately and consistently for some three weeks now? Your evasion of the question speaks to a larger issue that’s at the core of WSMV’s overall reporting practices.”  I have received no response from Mr. Trager to this question.
  • Despite the fact that I referred Mr. Trager yesterday in an e-mail at 5:30 p.m. Central to MCPS’s procurement policies – posted online and fully in the public domain — Mr. Trager e-mailed me at 10:23 Central last night with the question, “Why didn’t administrators seek bids in order to hire the company offering the services for the lowest price?” – demonstrating Mr. Trager has not made any effort to review these policies, which clearly answer the question that he continues to put forth amid a lack of easy research.
  • Also in an e-mail to me last night, Mr. Trager stated, “My goal here is simple: follow the money and get answers for the taxpayers of Maury County.”

 

“Follow the money”? For a story originating from the Elizabeth Thomas AMBER Alert?

My immediate knee-jerk speculation is whether Mr. Trager has watched “All the President’s Men” once too often, or whether he’s been ill-advised by a Hal Holbrook doppelganger dressed in a trench coat in a Maury County parking garage at 2 a.m.  The dots Mr. Trager is seeking to connect simply don’t exist or are otherwise nonsensical.

As I clearly relayed to WSMV some weeks ago and as I will reiterate now: my firm has been privileged to work via contract with the Maury County Chamber and Economic Alliance on the community’s pro-education campaign, “Grow Maury,” in full collaboration with MCPS’s leadership.

The nature of my short-term working relationship with MCPS to assist temporarily in the AMBER Alert communications response evolved from my work with the Maury Alliance and in collaboration with Dr. Marczak’s team and outstanding leadership on this campaign – which, incidentally, has never been covered even once by WSMV, even despite Chairman Bates’ clear footnote on page 2 of his letter to Mr. Trager yesterday encouraging him to balance his reporting at least somewhat with the positive news of what the school system is accomplishing; and also despite the fact that since the “Grow Maury” campaign has been launched with Dr. Marczak’s support, the following highly newsworthy outcomes have resulted, in direct service and benefit to all Maury County students:

  • Attendance / non-truancy rates broke Maury County records in the first semester of the 2016-17 school year.
  • The county’s college-going rate hit its highest percentage in recorded history.
  • A higher-than-projected number of students applied for Tennessee Promise in 2016.
  • Student Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) completion ranked among the top counties in Tennessee.
  • The Class of 2016’s ACT scores rose by an unprecedented full point.
  • A survey conducted in Q3 2016 indicated measurable improvement in perception / morale among educators.
  • Ninety percent of news coverage of MCPS was positive in 2016, compared to 60 percent in the latter part of 2015.
  • Maury County exceeded its quota of locally based tnAchieves mentors by 13 percent, one of Tennessee’s highest rates.

 

I submit these facts about MCPS and the values and accomplishments that this school system stands for, because these data points fly in the face of the context-free, overarching narrative of fake scandal that WSMV has aggressively sought to unleash upon MCPS in these recent weeks.

In closing, our society’s news media outlets as a whole are facing the lowest documented levels of public trust in the history of our country – and in large part, for no other reason than for some (not all) media outlets’ own actions and behaviors that subscribe fully to “gotcha” journalism and tactics that entail interjecting themselves into the news instead of reporting facts that rise to the level of SPJ journalistic standards, which, in case they are not posted in WSMV’s newsroom or within a square mile of 5700 Knob Road in Nashville, include the following core provisions:

  • Seek truth and report it.
  • Minimize harm.
  • Act independently.
  • Be accountable.

 

It is my hope that WSMV will alter its news-gathering approach with a focus on seeking to help find Miss Thomas (1-800-TBI-FIND), as only a portion of its coverage has actually been issued in direct service toward accomplishing.

-Mary Beth West, APR (E-mail: mb@marybethwest.com; Twitter: @marybethwest)

PR and Thought Leadership: Leading by Listening First

As a society, where are our listening skills?

A popular social media meme made the rounds during our last presidential election cycle, asking the question – paraphrasing here – have we forgotten how to listen for the purpose of truly absorbing and contemplating another person’s point of view, as opposed to just catching our breath to formulate our next verbal come-back?

In the public relations profession, thankfully, listening skills aren’t optional. They’re mandatory.

Successful public relations initiatives take a purposeful step to listen first, talk later. Research stands as the nexus point of practically any successful strategic communications campaign.  Why?

Because, we first have to know what we don’t know simply to understand exactly what kind of communications challenge we have in front of us – and then beyond that, we have to gather the facts and figures behind the core issues, in order to quantify the challenge in measurable terms.

People’s perceptions, actions and behaviors are driven by many complex dynamics. Getting our arms around those factors so that we can know what, when, where and how to communicate a message with real impact means the difference between success and failure.

Market research provides the eyes, ears and sensibilities of what a strategic communications campaign must overcome in order to connect with a targeted audience.

Looking to the essentials of an effective communications campaign, we want to impact not only awareness levels and opinions about an issue at the center of a campaign, but, quite possibly, also move the audience toward an altogether new action or set of behaviors long-term. After all, we people are funny creatures . . . we generally have to find a more convincing reason to change an engrained behavior than simply being told to change.

When we listen to our audiences at the deepest levels of inquiry – what they know, what they don’t know, what they think they know as fact but perhaps don’t know is nonfactual, or even if we find some of our own comeuppance to learn a reality in people’s lives that we didn’t know or fully appreciate before – we gain a much more realistic, grounded understanding of just how big our communications task at hand might be.

We also learn what level of effort in outreach, communications, relationship-building and call-to-action will be required to achieve a result the client needs.

A big part of listening is having an appreciation of what kinds of questions must be asked in the first place. Getting valid, unbiased and consistent data from an audience is far more challenging than one might think.

Over the years, our team has sourced much of our research work to Rebecca Bryant of Bryant Research. She helps our agency and client team to work together in the best ways to gather good insights that serve as a solid basis for communications strategy and action-planning.

What are you doing to make sure your brand is listening as part of its communications process? How are you integrating what you hear into how messages are crafted and brand conversations are managed?

Empowerment Torch or Flame Thrower: Can Modern Feminism Bridge Certain Divides?

Fifty-some years after the dawn of the Feminist Movement, what tone should modern feminism strike across generations and inclusive of women of diverse political ideologies?

I’m torn by this question, particularly during Women’s History Month as we consider where women’s equality now stands and how it’s evolving.

Living in this time of overwhelming hostility from many sources, there are women who often feel written-off-wholesale and sometimes even undermined by the very equality movement that is supposed to advance women’s interests universally.

I contended with this experience recently, with a female colleague I’ve known and appreciated for nearly 20 years but whose words have left me utterly disillusioned. This anecdote reflects the type of phenomenon that I’m seeing play out more and more in today’s political climate, and it has me shaking my head — not only about feminism but about our cultural logic.

To set the stage: my friend holds liberal views; on many issues (though not all), I hold conservative views.

My friend has been retired for several years after an accomplished career; I’m mid-career, age 44, and a 14-year business owner.

My friend entered the job market in an era when asking a job applicant if she planned to have a baby anytime soon didn’t pose a legally litigious risk; I entered the workforce at a time when the trend was taking hold of employer-lawsuit frenzy.

A final point: my friend originally met me when I was about 26 years old and probably will forever view me unconsciously as a 26-year-old . . . a central issue to my story.

One evening, I wandered into the fray of my friend’s Facebook page — hallowed real estate in which the owner is never “wrong,” hence the true medium of discourse-driven napalm.

My friend had posted criticism about a recent political confrontation on the national stage, in which the liberal reaction was to level sexism charges on a male U.S. senator; the conservative reaction was to level rule-breaking charges on a female senator.

I typically had avoided diving into my friend’s comment thread, because most days of the week I had enough sense to stay away from the inherent pitfalls. But that day wasn’t one of them.

What compelled me to go against my better judgment was that among her comments, my friend made what I thought was a stunning broad-brushstroke remark that “men are too stupid” to see that the female senator was correct in her actions and that the male senator was a sexist.

It immediately struck my sensibilities about equality in general, that if a man she knew had ever written the words “women are too stupid” on any matter in question, my friend would have been the first in line to power-punch the “unfriend” button, register a formal complaint with the nearest chapter of NOW and then, naturally, express outrage on Facebook.

Also, the double-standard didn’t escape me of someone from one gender brandishing “stupid” upon the entirety of another gender . . . which inherently seems sexist, all the while calling the other gender the same, for the ironic cherry on top.

As I reeled a bit from this observation, a self-described politically centrist man then responded on my friend’s feed, asking, can a man not engage a woman in a conversation and not be name-called if there is disagreement?

That’s when I jumped in, foolishly presuming some voice of reason.

In response to the centrist, I stated that men and women both have to avoid double-standards and play by the same rules. I also remarked that the female senator in this controversy was strategically but, I felt, disingenuously playing the sexism card to her political fundraising advantage (a windfall which was being documented in news reports of the situation).

What my friend posted in partial response threw me back on my heels.

To paraphrase, she said that I had no ground to stand on because if it weren’t for her and her generation, I wouldn’t have had my opportunities (replete with virtual mic-drop).

My mental reaction: four-alarm fire.

In my naiveté, I never expected to be told – as someone who’s taken major professional risks with my own capital to originate employment for myself and others (including scores of women) and worked for years at an intensity that no one is really privy to – that my opportunities didn’t result from my own tenacity.

I further never imagined that such a comment would come from another woman, a self-proclaimed feminist, when we as feminists are supposed to celebrate women of all generations who pursue their economic dreams independently and who help other women do the same.

The comment struck me with this overtone: “Sit down and shut up, little lady / kiddo, and I expect my tribute check in the mail.”

Without ensuing drama, thankfully, everyone managed to sign off the now-toxic Facebook feed for the evening. But I went to bed feeling unsettled and woke up even more so.

In any experience like this, I go into analytical mode. What just happened? What can I learn from it?  (And, “just stay off Facebook” — my husband’s albeit wise solution — isn’t a real solution to me when it’s clear that these troubling scenarios keep unfolding across our society’s landscape, whether I choose to show up as witness to them or not.)

Some other questions:

  • To what extent was my colleague’s and my disagreement a left-wing / right-wing political difference . . . or, instead, a generational divide?
  • Do Generation X, the Millennials, etc., owe patron sainthood to the Baby Boomer Generation for breaking down past gender barriers? With due deference to the Suffragettes, the legitimate answer may very well be “yes,” but to what extent, then, is the expectation that we youngsters kiss the rings of vocal feminists who came before us and are barred from disagreement with them?
  • When does any emerging generation of women get credit for making their own advancements? As to the merits of individual human beings, shouldn’t every woman have a right to feel that her accomplishments in life are hers . . . and don’t belong to some other person who insinuates a right to them?
  • Do men deal with this garbage? (Rhetorical question to which the answer is known definitively.)

As a conservative, I defer to my own patron saint and ask, “What Would Margaret Do?”

The late British Prime Minister Thatcher’s famous quote rings true to the parallel analogy: “Power is like being a lady… if you have to tell people you are, you aren’t.”

As a gender, if proving our empowerment means we have to burn so much finite energy, burn relationships or “joke” about burning / blowing up the White House (should we have taken Madonna “literally” or “seriously”?), then just how far have women advanced, and at what point does righteousness turn self-righteous?

I don’t deny that sexism, other damaging prejudices and very real injustices such as wage inequality exist and that, on the all-out sexism front, there are some men out there who display their own unique brand of jerkdom, although in my own little world, they are few and far between.

I’m also blonde, from the South (and sound like it), until a decade ago was most often the youngest person in the room in business meetings, and, three kids ago, might have enjoyed an exceptionally good hair day or two. Since my first internship at age 18 when I stepped anew into the workforce, I’ve experienced in my career more snide remarks, denigrating passive-aggressive maneuvers and overt -isms directed at me for any number of these traits from other women than I ever experienced from men with patriarchy issues.

Immediate Disclaimer: I have also been blessed immensely throughout my life by women – particularly Baby Boomers – who served as insightful and generous supervisors, mentors, clients, role models and friends, who never in a million years would treat me in the ways I just described . . . my mother chief among them. I do owe to them a debt of gratitude, although it would never dawn on these particular women to try to cash it in, whatever that means.

Emulating my mother’s example, my lifelong approach has been to get down to the business of life, come what may of obstacles in all their forms.

That approach certainly reflected Lady Thatcher’s revolutionizing style in being named leader of her party in 1975 and elected Great Britain’s first female prime minister in 1979 — an era when glass ceilings were as thick as could be. Think what you will of her politics (and even I don’t agree with every issue she advocated), but her opponents were routinely left in the dust and at the losing end of the ballot box by her fierce intellectual arguments based on actual merits of the subject at hand and not on a broken-record refrain that to disagree with her was tantamount to sexism.

It is for these reasons that, even though I understand its genesis and respect those who embraced it for certain reasons, the #NastyWoman persona that became so popular in social media late last year feels misaligned with who I am, who I want to be as a feminist and how I hope my three young daughters will be.

Although there are days when I fall short spectacularly, I want to be the kind of woman who leaves other people with positive feelings and a sense of mutual respect even in the face of disagreement, because she feels comfortable with exactly who she is, channels her envy of others — particularly other women — as admiration and not self-entitlement, and makes her own hard choices in life without misplaced judgment of others, even though her own path isn’t perfect, others aren’t perfect, she’s certainly not perfect and life never will be.

Is there any place for this brand of feminism?

Mary Beth West Communications Garners ADDYs for Post-Wildfire Cartoon Series

Alcoa, Tenn.— The American Advertising Federation of Knoxville’s 52nd Annual American Advertising Awards on Feb. 25, 2017, included Mary Beth West Communications among its honorees.

The firm won two ADDYs for MBWC’s December 2016 cartoon series developed in coordination with Pulitzer Prize-nominated editorial cartoonist Marshall Ramsey for MBWC client, the Smoky Mountain Tourism Development Authority (SMTDA).

The cartoons were developed and released on social media in response to tourism-traffic concerns immediately following the Nov. 28 Sevier County wildfirescentered in Gatlinburg / Pigeon Forge, garnering national media attention.

Tourism in the area took an immediate hit – not only in Sevier County, where the disaster actually occurred, but also in adjacent Blount County, where many Blount hotels and motels helped respond by donating supplies and overnight stays to displaced residents as well as aid workers.

Many travelers, however, faced confusion in thinking that Blount County was directly impacted, given that both counties include neighboring gateways to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, resulting initially in numerous hotel cancellations that impacted Blount businesses.

“Blount County tourism destinations were in a predicament, experiencing cancellations, when the wildfires had actually taken place in Gatlinburg / Pigeon Forge,” said agency owner Mary Beth West. “Many out-of-town travelers weren’t making the geographic distinction.”

“We needed to get out a communication – something creative and attention-getting that would have wide play in social media – that would set the record straight but also help uplift our neighbors in Sevier County, given the tragedy they were facing,” West said.

With the collaboration of SMTDA Tourism Director Kim Mitchell, MBWC reached out to cartoonist Marshall Ramsey, who created a series of three cartoons: one spotlighting Dolly Parton’s #MyPeopleFund relief effort; one as a tribute to aid workers; and a third with a direct call-to-action message showing forest animals beckoning visitors to visit the Smoky Mountains.

With a modest project budget and with MBWC managing the dispatch and media outreach, the cartoons achieved overwhelming results.

More than 4,400 people shared the cartoons through SMTDA’s and MBWC’s Facebook pages alone. The cartoons’ average cost per impression ($0.002) was a mere 0.62 percent of the industry average ($0.35) for paid reach on Facebook. The Tennessee Department of Tourism shared each cartoon with its nationwide audience, and Dolly Parton’s agent contacted the MBWC team directly to request the original illustration of the “Thanks Dolly” cartoon, which SMTDA donated back to the Dollywood Foundation directly.

Of the most impressive results, however, the campaign increased year-over-year / month-of-December Facebook likes for “The Peaceful Side of the Smokies” page by 1,434 percent, engagement by 287 percent and reach by 375 percent. SMTDA also reported that Blount hotel bookings from Dec. 2016 – Jan. 2017 rose 15 percent from the same time segment in the previous year – meaning that the campaign helped net an impressive increase in normal tourism traffic for the county despite the Sevier wildfires.

Not Just Fact-Checking – But Also Tone, Demonstrated Competence and Even Likability – Impact Public Trust

President Bill Clinton. Kellyanne Conway. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg. Steve Jobs. General Colin Powell. President Ronald Reagan. Sheryl Sandberg. General Mike Flynn. Sen. Elizabeth Warren. Oprah Winfrey.

When you think of each of these diverse leader-messengers, varying perceptions may immediately come to mind, relative to your trust in them as leader-messengers.

Certainly, their respective track records of providing or having provided truthful and reliable information probably factor into your trust barometer for each of them.

But when you really think about it, is truth-telling the only factor or influencer of trust, in your view?

What about each of these people’s overall presence, personality, tone, competence and likability?

For example, did any of them ever say something or advocate for something that you disagreed with, but you still felt a high level of trust in them as leaders because you felt that they had strong knowledge and competence about the subject matter, had other people’s best interests at heart and/or presented their message with either a flair or tone that resonated with you, such as coming across as respectful of others despite differences in agreement?

Conversely, did any of them ever say or advocate for something you agreed with in principle, but you felt an uneasiness or discomfort with their overall message because you questioned the substance of their expertise, thought they may have an ulterior/undisclosed motive or communicated in a style that was off-putting or even all-out offensive?

These questions force us to think beyond literal words in what we communicate and explore the granular roots of trust-building in how we communicate.

In 2014, The Wall Street Journal published an article, “Why Likability Matters More at Work,” and Forbes published a piece in 2015, “13 Habits of Exceptionally Likeable People.”

I recommend you check them out, as a conversation-starter among your own communications and management team.  Whether communicating internally to an employee- or team-based audience or externally in a media interview or public speech, the various traits of who’s doing the talking are a big deal in whether messages are accepted or valued.

There’s some je ne sais quoi /  I-don’t-know-what / secret-sauce that may come into play, such as simple personal charisma, which is an either-you’re-born-with-it-or-you’re-not factor. But there are some controllable elements of how you achieve audience presence or underlying tone that can be learned skill sets.

As our society struggles with trust issues in the institutions we depend upon for governance, information or protection, the public relations profession has the greatest role to play in helping those intuitions identify their trust issues and Achilles heels in order to improve their communications, relationships and reputations as worthy of trust by the public.

Without question, the substance of our messages tied to verifiable fact-based information is utterly critical. Trust issues are tough to ever fix effectively, once someone has developed a reputation for fast-and-loose treatment of facts, data and information-sourcing. We see the impact and consequences of these very issues playing out in the news each day and even within the media outlets themselves that report the news.

However, the degree to which diverse audiences will ever be open in the first place to a person’s or entity’s ideas, positions or vision is heavily influenced by the extent to which the person doing the talking is able to achieve a positive connection with their audience. One’s ability to connect hinges on many factors, both objective and subjective.

What are your criteria for judging a leader or messenger as credible and trustworthy?

Holocaust Survivor and Stepsister of Anne Frank, Eva Schloss, to Speak Feb. 21 in Knoxville

Blount Clergy and Business Leaders Speak to Importance of Event throughout Interfaith Community

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – Soon, all World War II Holocaust survivors will be gone. Ensuring that their stories live on depends on today’s society hearing their testimonies and carrying them forward to future generations.

Eva Schloss

Such an opportunity takes place Tues., Feb. 21, 2017. The Knoxville Jewish Community in partnership with the Tennessee Holocaust Commission and East Tennessee Foundation will host a historic event: an opportunity to hear featured speaker and author, Eva Schloss, a Holocaust survivor as well as stepsister and childhood friend of famed teenage diarist Anne Frank.

Schloss will travel from London to tell her story of triumph and survival during an interview led by Knoxville talk radio host, Hallerin Hilton Hill. The event will take place at the Knoxville Civic Auditorium, with seating for 2,500.

The following day, on Wed., Feb. 22, Schloss will speak directly to 2,500 high school students from Tennessee schools. The event is open to high school educators and students.

Schloss serves as a trustee of the Anne Frank Educational Trust and is the author of three books and the subject of James Still’s play, “And Then They Came for Me: Remembering the World of Anne Frank.”

Anne Frank

Like her stepsister, Schloss went into hiding in Holland until she and her family were betrayed, captured and sent to the Auschwitz-Birkenau Nazi death camp, one of thousands of camps and incarceration sites where millions of Jews perished during World War II.

After the war, Schloss’ mother Elfriede (1905-1998) married Otto Frank – the father of Anne Frank. Anne Frank, along with her sister, died at Bergen-Belsen concentration camp; their mother died at Auschwitz.

Since 1985, Schloss has devoted herself to Holocaust education and global peace.

Blount Community of All Faiths – Including Youth – Urged to Attend

The public, including all faiths, is encouraged to attend the event. First United Methodist Church of Maryville Senior Pastor Catherine Nance said she feels that the evil evident in the Holocaust is a subject of exploration and deep reflection relevant to all – particularly youth who are just learning about what the Holocaust was, as part of 20th century history.

“What an opportunity to hear firsthand from someone who has survived the horrors of ‘death camps,’” Rev. Nance said. “It is so important to remember that this is not ancient history. This event will hopefully tune our ears to be aware of veiled prejudice and hatred. I am encouraging my congregation to attend.”

As an in-kind corporate sponsor of the event, Blount County-based Mary Beth West Communications, LLC, points to the event as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for citizens to hear from someone who not only lived through many of the same circumstances as Anne Frank but also knew her personally.

“Being in the same room with Eva Schloss and to have only one degree of separation from the teenage girl who was Anne Frank – whose innocence and whose writings impacted the world – may not be an opportunity that our community will have again,” said Mary Beth West, who also serves on the board of sponsoring organization, East Tennessee Foundation. “This is an event that will benefit and enrich people from all backgrounds and walks of life.”

Knoxville Art Exhibition Offers Tangible Pieces of Holocaust-Era History

An exhibition of original artwork by members of Eva Schloss’ family who lived through the Holocaust, on loan from the Dutch Resistance Museum in Amsterdam, will be displayed at the Knoxville Museum of Art and will enhance Schloss’ amazing story. Paintings by Schloss’ brother and father, Heinz and Erich Geiringer, were created while the family was in hiding and were discovered after the war under the floorboards of their attic hiding spot.

Knoxville Museum of Art Executive Director David Butler said he feels the paintings are a special and profound installation.

“The museum is pleased to have the rare opportunity to display these original paintings by a father and son while hiding during the Holocaust,” said Butler. “The paintings are traveling a long way from the Netherlands to Knoxville. We’re thrilled to have the chance to share these compelling works of art that are an integral part of history.”

Knoxville Jewish Alliance Executive Director Deborah Oleshansky urges the community to attend.

“The Holocaust is a challenging subject, but it teaches a time that is difficult to imagine, providing valuable and critical lessons in human history,” Oleshansky said. “Eva’s courageous story of survival is also an inspirational story of hope and perseverance. We’re honored to have her come to Knoxville.”

Individual and group tickets are available through the event website www.evaschlosstn.com as well as the Knoxville Civic Auditorium box office . More information on the event, including sponsorships, is available through the website www.evaschlosstn.com.

About Eva Schloss

Eva Schloss is a Holocaust survivor: a wife, mother, daughter, sister, grandmother, friend, a teacher and a humanitarian.

She survived escape from her homeland in Austria, two years in hiding, capture on her 15th birthday, nine months in Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp, repatriation in Holland and the death of her beloved father and brother.

Forty years after the end of World War II, Eva began to share her story. She has since written two books and spoken to more than a thousand audiences about her experiences. In 1999, Eva joined United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan in signing the Anne Frank Peace Declaration, along with a niece of Raul Wallenberg, a Schindler-like hero who rescued thousands of Jews in Budapest.  Eva joins many courageous individuals who work tirelessly to end the violence and bigotry that continue to plague the world.

PR and Thought Leadership: Is Your Brand Leading the Conversation?

Yesteryear’s model of marketing communications allowed brands to get away with one-way directional “push” communications to build awareness and call-to-action. It was called straight-up advertising. It cost a fortune (with widely unmeasurable returns), and by reason of that barrier to entry, few smaller enterprises could pay-to-play and do it well, realistically.

Today, digital communications provide brands with more cost-effective options than most know what to do with, but even with the expanded toolbox, brands need to have a cogent overarching strategy and clear-cut way of showing off their secret sauce . . . but without divulging too may secrets.

In short, brands must show inventiveness in communicating their value propositions to keep their messages interesting and their audiences interested.

We counsel many of our clients about the power of thought leadership as a core communications strategy, to help audiences perceive the client’s brand as a valid source of expertise – and one that audiences want to keep close in their back pocket, both as customers of the brand themselves and a source of referral to others.

Stay tuned in the weeks ahead as we:

1. Uncover the business reasons why thought leadership provides value to your brand and also impacts a host of possibly unexpected areas, like employee morale / relations

2. Dissect several approaches to examine the conversations and media platforms where your brand should be participating . . . and quite possibly leading for competitive benefit

3. Share some case studies of our own clients who are finding success as spokespersons for their industry or sector, thanks to a thought leadership approach

Ping us if you have any specific questions about the process that you’d like for us to answer. We’d like to help your brand get started in executing this strategy.