It always seems impossible until it’s done.
The first time I saw a “Free Nelson Mandela” bumper sticker, I was too young and self-absorbed to pay much attention. I knew about apartheid, of course; while it struck me as reprehensible, South Africa was half a world away, and I had other things to concern me. How I regret that narrow-minded youth!
Fortunately, the future did not depend upon my involvement. Mandela was freed despite my apathy, and an entire nation was transformed. This week’s passing
of the man called Madiba saddens me and the rest of the world—not just because of the amazing things he accomplished, but because he never wavered from his message: reconciliation is greater than retribution. Mandela kept hammering on that point through most of his life, even after 27 years of being unjustly imprisoned.
The 2009 film Invictus
, based on John Carlin’s outstanding book
, Playing With The Enemy
, has a scene that is forever seared into my heart. Book and film tell the tale of how Mandela used the 1995 Rugby World Cup to bring South Africans together, regardless of race, and begin the process of healing.
In the aforementioned scene, South African team captain Francois Pienaar
, portrayed by actor Matt Damon, is reflecting upon his visit to the prison where Mandela spent much of his incarcerated years.
“I was thinking,” he says, his voice an amazed whisper, “about how you spend 30 years in a tiny cell and come out ready to forgive the people who put you there.”
In a movie or a novel, maybe. But no man could be that compassionate, that forgiving, in real life. And yet, Mandela walked this talk to the very end. He wasn’t perfect; no man is. There was a time long ago when he espoused a more violent path. But ultimately he was determined to deliver the message of grace he believed, in word and in deed, to the best of his ability. Forgiveness is better than revenge; freedom and compassion trump the Pyrrhic victory.
“There is nothing like returning to a place that remains unchanged to find the ways in which you yourself have altered,” Mandela once said.
The paths I trod in my clueless youth are re-crossed now and then by an older me. I find Madiba’s words to be true: I am altered in large part because of the courage of Nelson Mandela, one of the greatest leaders and communicators in history.
When Black Friday comes,
I’ll stand down by the door
And catch the grey men when they dive
From the 14th floor.
—Steely Dan, “Black Friday”
It hit me today—minutes ago, in fact—while reading with disdain yet another story about lunatic behavior by Black Friday shoppers:
I might be part of the problem.
To clarify, I am not one of those brave (or foolhardy, take your pick) souls who venture onto the retail battlefield the day after Thanksgiving. While I appreciate a good deal as much as anyone, no discount is worth the stress of heavy traffic, frantic crowds and ill tempers. My family needs no gift so badly that I must risk life, limb and/or pride to get it.
And then, speaking of pride….
I was perusing various online news and social media sites, deliberately looking for stories of Black Friday chaos, growing comfortably smug. As I tsk-tsk’d a piece on two women whose clash involved a Taser, suddenly I realized that I was feeding this misguided feast.
The more that people like me seek out these things, the more it will be highlighted on social media as in-store stampedes are documented on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.
One could argue, I suppose, that using social media to lay bare these appalling examples of human behavior serves a noble purpose—awareness can spawn positive action. And make no mistake, there are countless examples of this happening.
But for every politician caught behaving badly on Facebook, there are thousands of instances where the worst behaviors are displayed merely for the amusement of, and ridicule by, those who aren’t interested in participating in positive change.
Every form of communication, including social media, places a level of responsibility upon those involved. The interactive nature of the online world is still sorting this out. The lesson I learned today is to be more discerning of what I consume in cyberspace—and humbly remember that there, but for the grace of God, go I.
I don’t expect these learnings will change the Internet. But I hope they change me.
Image: Simon Howden/Freedigitalphotos.net
The guy was talking about Shakespeare, and he had my attention.
Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum, was on NPR
to discuss his new book, Shakespeare’s Restless World: A Portrait of an Era in Twenty Objects
. I happen to enjoy history and respect William Shakespeare’s work, though I wouldn’t call myself an expert on either.
But what drew me into the interview was MacGregor’s passion as an author. The energy he channeled while describing the events that influenced Shakespeare reminded me of a delighted child.
is where this book began,” he enthused. “We the public work with Shakespeare the writer to imagine a new world.”
Within 24 hours, I encountered two other interviews with authors mirroring MacGregor’s joy.
One was another NPR interview
, this one with best-selling author John Grisham, whose latest, Sycamore Row
, currently resides at #2 on the New York Times
list. Grisham clearly enjoyed discussing his work—not in a prideful way, but as a child sharing a special treat with a best friend.
“Every book goes back to story. You can’t write anything without a story,” Grisham said, as if revealing a closely guarded secret.
The other interview was an online piece
featuring Steven Moffat, a BBC television writer and producer. Moffat struck me as almost giddy.
“It's everything you ask for,” said Moffat. “They say be careful what you wish for. No. Don't be careful what you wish for. Absolutely wish for stuff.”
As a published author, I understand their excitement. I’ve never forgotten the rush I felt the first time I landed an article in a magazine, or saw my byline on a newspaper story, or beheld my first novel on a bookshelf. Make the mistake of asking me about my latest short story, and you’ll be subjected to a rapid-fire dissertation delivered with a broad grin.
So it’s both amusing and puzzling to me when I hear about (and at times encounter) the deplorable state of writing in business—and, I’m sad to say, in the communications field. Some reports have estimated the cost to business of following up on poor writing by employees as much as $3.1 billion per year.
A portion of the blame lies with our education system. As instructors are pressured to “teach to the test,” good writing doesn’t get the attention it should.
But I think there’s another element at play: the corporate world’s misguided vision of quality prose. In short, never settle for a simple word when a six-syllable one will do.
My corporate career began after a few years as a journalist. Reporters learn how to convey complex ideas in clear, simple language. When I tried to do the same in a company setting, the red ink flowed freely. It took awhile for me to realize that many corporate leaders prefer ambiguity; it gives them room to waffle.
Fortunately, I had colleagues who fought that mindset, and I gladly joined the fight. Sure, sometimes I had to succumb to “corporatespeak” to satisfy a superior. But as I look back, I believe sanity prevailed more often than not.
And best of all, the joy of writing—and writing well
—wasn’t beaten out of me.
So if I dare take Steven Moffat at his word, I’ll hazard a wish: that the new generation of professional communicators embrace that joy and be true champions of great writing.
David Tennant as The Doctor (Copyright BBC-TV)
Reporter: Is anyone going to tell me what’s going on?
The Doctor: What are you, a journalist?
The Doctor: Then make it up.
—“Partners in Crime,” Doctor Who (2008)
The debate continues over the reliability of the news media as a source of accurate, objective and impartial information.
It’s an old debate, of course, one that I’ve opined on
before (or invited others
to do). And I have no illusion that it will be resolved soon.
What’s disturbing, however, is the public’s presumption of guilt among today’s journalists. Sadly, some of that reputation is earned
, a la
Jonah Lehrer, Janet Cooke and Jayson Blair. And as I’ve said previously, the steady stream of errors and weak reporting that flow from newsrooms devastated by years of downsizings adds fuel to the fire.
But as a former journalist, it rattled me to hear this line from the aforementioned episode of Doctor Who
, in which a reporter infiltrates a pharmaceutical company that, stereotypically, is involved in nefarious activities.
(For the sake of transparency: I worked in that industry for 25 years. While it has a vast number of issues, attitudes and practices that need to be addressed, the “evil” moniker constantly slapped upon it is, in my view, unfair to the thousands of workers who strive each day to deliver life-saving medicines to patients.)
The long-lived BBC television series played this moment for laughs—the reporter is tied to a chair, and the Doctor is too busy fighting an alien conspiracy to help her out. Yet it’s clear the accusation has more than a little intentional bite.
True, the British press has a somewhat vicious reputation; impartiality isn’t a given, and questionable practices—such as alleged phone hacking by the defunct News of the World, now the subject of a high-profile court trial
—aren’t unknown. But stalwart defender of press freedom within me trembles a bit each time these toss-off comments occur.
Interestingly, there’s a debate going on in journalism over the measure of objectivity that was once the commitment of the news media. Some suggest that objectivity is impossible, and that accuracy, fairness and impartiality are the standards to which they should aspire.
I agree on the first two, though I’m not convinced that objectivity vs. impartiality isn’t just splitting hairs. Still, the debate is worthy of our attention. The credibility of the Fourth Estate might rest upon the outcome.
Ryanair's Michael O'Leary
Now and then I get asked to speak on crisis communications, and one of the examples I use for doing it incorrectly is Michael O’Leary, the provocative CEO of Ryanair. You may remember this gentleman as the man who:
- Publicly called a woman who forgot her boarding pass an “idiot.”
- Told another passenger who demanded a refund, “You’re not getting a refund, so f*** off. We don’t want to hear your sob stories.”
- Considered putting pay toilets on his airliners.
- Suggested eliminating seat belts and offering standing-room-only flights.
- Managed to amuse/annoy (take your pick) both his industry and his company in a single sentence: “The airline industry is full of bull********, liars and drunks, and we excel at all three in Ireland.”
I could go on, but you get the idea.
The story I tell about O’Leary involves a report
on the BBC investigative news show “Panorama” about Ryanair’s hidden fees that sometimes driving airfare to a level that rivals larger carriers. O’Leary blasted the report, deriding those involved and—while not completely botching his response—generally throwing a hissy fit.
But my colleagues in the PR firm aren’t so sure O’Leary is the loose cannon he appears to be. I admit, too, that I may have to rethink my position—to a point.
There’s no denying that O’Leary is entertaining, albeit in that watching-a-train-wreck-happen vein. His latest adventure was a Twitter chat
in which he hit on a female questioner, espoused the value of tantric sex, and made this unprompted observation: “Call me genius, Jesus, Superman, or odious little s**t, whatever takes your fancy as long as you fly Ryanair!”
That last comment offers us a peek at O'Leary's motivation. His crazy behavior may be more intentional than he would have us believe. He entertains us. If we’re entertained, we’re paying attention. And if we’re paying attention, we’re open to buying what he’s selling.
O’Leary isn’t the first person to use offensive acts to get noticed—Miley Cyrus, anyone?—and I can’t deny it works to some degree. But I stop well short of advocating the approach.
And that's why I’m troubled when I read comments from PR pros calling O’Leary “refreshing” and “outrageous but harmless.” I think he does long-term harm to the brand; indeed, Ryanair's recent easing of baggage fees is part of a concerted effort to rejuvenate customer relations.
The fact is, everyone eventually wearies of the class clown. And when the jokes grow stale, the clown rarely has anything else to offer.
I didn’t expect to be part of this conversation. I suppose no one ever does. Yet there I was, in the TV room at my parents’ home, listening to a hospice caseworker discuss the remainder of my mom’s life in clear, frank prose.
Twelve years ago, stage 4 breast cancer threatened my mother’s existence. Through a series of difficult medical treatments and an abundance of prayer, the miracle happened: the cancer was defeated. But as is often the case with this terrible disease, its failure was not permanent. The cancer returned last year and has proven frustratingly resilient. Treatment has been ended as Mom considers her next steps.
God has been generous with His miracles in my family’s life; I’m confident His supply hasn’t dwindled. At the same time, I know that life ends for all of us, usually sooner than we wish. How we face that fact, be it for ourselves or for a loved one, has immense importance.
As a professional communicator, I was intrigued by the approach of the caseworker. She was kind, empathetic—and brutally honest. My initial reaction was, “Wow, that’s cold!” But almost immediately I realized that anything less than honesty and transparency does a gross disservice to the patient. Evasive platitudes won’t help Mom make the decisions she must make, and they won’t help the family deal with the road that lies ahead.
From that conversation, my respect for hospice has grown.
Further, there’s a lesson to be learned by public relations and communications leaders. Our first duty—yes, first—must be to the truth. It’s our responsibility to help our audiences and our masters understand, embrace and deal with reality.
As most of my colleagues know, I despise the term “spin” because it suggests one can manipulate reality to evade and deceive. Thus a “spin doctor,” in my view, is an expert at lying. And that’s a profession in which I want no part.
Of course, rejecting “spin” means accepting that sometimes reality offers no escape, no alternate view to consider. So be it. Our job then becomes helping our clients adapt to that reality in an open, helpful, forward-thinking way.
The pain may be real; owning the path forward in an honest, open way is how we deal with it.
One of the great assets of newspapers has been the Letters to the Editor (LTE) section. For at least two and a half centuries, ordinary people have used LTEs to share perspectives and drive dialogue on every topic under the sun. Not all such letters are reasonable in language and tone, but typically they’re required to meet certain standards.
And then came the Internet.
While I support online dialogue, I’m a longtime critic of anonymous tomes in the comments section of news websites. Hiding behind handles, many people say things that are untrue or hurtful because they can get away with it. Others make slanderous, outrageous claims—called trolling—just to get a rise out of others. They threaten, cajole and rant in ways they would never do in public, at least not without fear of arrest or lawsuit.
When news sites began to emerge online in the 1990s, comments were seen as a way to tap the interactive potential of the Internet by allowing immediate feedback from readers. Anonymity, it was believed, would broaden the conversation.
It’s done that—but not always to the benefit of reasoned discourse. And that's left many online outlets struggling with how to manage the flood of comments within readers’ expectations of free speech.
This week, one major media outlet decided to step away from the fight. Popular Science magazine announced it was shutting off readers’ comments on its online articles.
“As the news arm of a 141-year-old science and technology magazine, we are as committed to fostering lively, intellectual debate as we are to spreading the word of science far and wide,” wrote Suzanne LeBarre, online editor of the magazine. “The problem is when trolls and spambots overwhelm the former, diminishing our ability to do the latter.
“And because comments sections tend to be a grotesque reflection of the media culture surrounding them, the cynical work of undermining bedrock scientific doctrine is now being done beneath our own stories, within a website devoted to championing science.”
The decision by Popular Science is sad but entirely understandable.
“Free speech today allows one to ignore civility and spout profane, uncouth, rude and outrageous comments online within certain parameters,” write John W. Dozier and Sue Scheff in their book, Google Bomb. “But the line between protected online speech and yelling ‘fire’ in a virtual theater is yet to be fleshed out.”
I don’t see that clarity coming anytime soon, meaning more online sites may go the way of Popular Science. That will leave fewer places for the mean-spirited to spew their venom—and, regrettably, fewer opportunities for healthy conversations that move society forward.
[Note: I originally wrote this as a guest blog for my dear friend Mary Jo Asmus at Aspire Collaborative Services.]“Have you realized,” a friend pointed out to me, “that yours may be the first novel in the history of fiction to have a PR person as
Well … no, actually. After all, I’m a public relations guy by day—and, too often, by night, weekend and holiday—so one shouldn’t expect me to assail my profession, even by parable. True, Tristan West, one of the key characters in my novel Radiance
, isn’t entirely likable. He’s angry, hard-drinking, self-centered and resentful, a real curmudgeon. But those are behaviors borne from his experiences, not traits of his career.
So I started thinking: Why shouldn’t
a PR guy be the hero of a novel? What is it about the term “public relations” that brings the pot of social ire to a boil? And what can leaders learn from that?
What I eventually realized was this: It’s all about the truth. What keeps Tristan from being totally contemptible is his true character. At bottom, he really is a man of integrity; he cares about what is right and true. That fact overwhelms his cynicism and expunges his selfishness. He rises above his darker tendencies. Truth is what makes him a leader.
In the real world, sadly, some organizations use PR as a smokescreen. They eschew honest dialogue in favor of selective truthtelling and blurry presentations. In short, they embrace “spin,” a word that every PR professional and every leader should strike from their vocabulary. There’s another word for spin; it’s called lying.
But real public relations, like real leadership, is dedicated to the truth. Both desire to understand their stakeholders through honest dialogue and relationship-building. Both are willing to learn and to change. Both are focused on mutual respect and a common vision. Both know that deception never works, at least not for long, and that truth is the only mortar that binds the bricks of trust, commitment and shared success.
We live in a disturbing era of Wikileakage, where mistrust is rampant, rumors overflow and conspiracies—real or imagined—lurk behind every closed door. Perhaps never before have we been in such need of genuine leaders—those committed to integrity, to compassion, to what is right and true.
Truth isn’t always the easy path, as Tristan discovers at the risk of his life. But it’s always the right path to take—and the only one true leaders follow.
The unspoken etiquette of reviewing works of art—paintings, books, films and so on—goes something like this: Critics say whatever they want, and creators shut up and take it.
Has that rule changed with the burgeoning platform that is the Internet? Apparently not. And therein lies a powerful lesson about online communication.
Earlier this year, Paramount Pictures released the 12th film in its venerable Star Trek
franchise. Directed by JJ Abrams, Star Trek Into Darkness
earned big bucks and a mixed bag of reviews. But for a huge segment of Trekkies, Darkness
and its predecessor, 2009’s Star Trek
, have departed from the storytelling and social commentary of the original 1960s series. And they’re not afraid to say so, sometimes brutally.
In that light, the website Trekmovie posted an editorial
describing how Star Trek
is “broken.” A great many fans piled on, decrying the shortcomings of Abrams’ work.
This prompted one of the writers of Darkness
, accomplished scribe Roberto Orci, to weigh in directly. He criticized the editorial (and, presumably, the author) as “a child acting out against his parents.” The ensuing exchange led Orci to reference “shitty fans,” point out that “there’s a reason I write movies and you don’t,” and suggest such critics should “F*** off.”
Orci later apologized for the rant via Twitter—his not-so-remorseful excuse: “Twice a year I explode at the morons”—but the damage had been done. Commenters slammed him for lashing out at fans, calling Orci “insufferably arrogant.” He’s since shut down his Twitter account and vanished from the online fray.
Orci isn’t the first man to confront his detractors—Samuel L. Jackson vs. AO Scott over a scathing New York Times
review of The Avengers
is a recent example.
But now that the interwebs afford nearly everyone the chance to share their opinions, the well of self-proclaimed film critics has broadened. It isn’t surprising that Orci lost his temper.
Yet columnist Simon Brew, writing for the website Den of Geek
, suggested that part of the reason fans reacted so strongly to Orci’s comments is the unspoken rule, i.e., critics may criticize, creators may not.
“He could sit there and take it, working to the old unsaid agreement that the customer can say whatever they like once they'd handed over their cash, no matter how wronged that may leave him feeling ... or he could engage with it,” Brew wrote.
While Brew didn’t give Orci a pass for his condescending remarks, he did suggest that fans were being unfair to him for daring to defend his work.
In my view, this instance shows the two-edged sword that is social media. On one side, now everyone has a means to share an opinion; the downside is that the Web doesn’t distinguish between learned opinions and puerile name-calling.
The painful lesson that Orci learned reminds us to be careful and critical managers of what we post. Orci’s words will live on; no apology will make them go away. Worse, those words will color everything he says or posts, perhaps for the rest of his career.
How we engage online detractors sets the tone for our long-term relationship with them. Hence my personal rule of thumb: Never post on the Internet what you wouldn’t be proud to see on an expressway billboard.
“I’d sooner live among people who don’t cheat at cards than among people who are earnest about not cheating at cards.” — C.S. Lewis
September is nearly upon us, that time of year when the Public Relations Society of America promotes Ethics Awareness Month. We PR types are reminded of the PRSA Code of Ethics and the importance of keeping our noses clean.
I applaud PRSA’s efforts. I just wish our profession talked about it more often than once a year.
Public relations is saddled with a reputation of misinformation, half-truths and flat-out lies. Sadly, that rep is sometimes earned; every profession has its unethical practitioners, and PR is no exception. Indeed, I recently stumbled across an old New York Times piece
about a survey claiming 25 percent of public relations practitioners admit to lying.
Whether a true measure or not, the reality is that PR is more visible than most fields, so our dirty laundry gets greater exposure. And the sheets need not be exceptionally soiled; even a slight discoloration is enough to destroy a reputation.
Since I prefer an optimistic view, I like to think that activities like PRSA’s Ethics Awareness Month help keep the industry on the straight and narrow. But I’m also realistic that some will eschew.
For example, consider the case of Museum Tower, a high-rise condo development in Dallas in a long-running battle with the nearby Nasher Sculpture Center. In an investigative story
by the Dallas Morning News,
a public relations consultant for the Museum Tower’s owners is accused of creating false profiles on social media to criticize Nasher. Incredibly, the consultant initially defended his actions as a means to “facilitate a community dialogue.”
Instances like this often come with wonderfully articulate rationalizations. They fool no one.
I was heartened to read the reaction
of the PRSA Dallas chapter to the Museum Tower controversy: “In the strongest terms possible, the Public Relations Society of America, Dallas Chapter, repudiates the actions of someone claiming to practice public relations. … He is not a member, never has been a member and never will be a member.”
Yet this demonstrates that the battle for ethical behavior in public relations is far from over. And the responsibility for regaining the reputational ground lost must be owned by all of us
in this profession. That means honest, ethical behavior by every person, every time.