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Archive for the ‘public relations’ Category

Like so many, my thoughts are turning to the tenth anniversary of the attacks on our country which forever changed my sense of safety, my assumptions around what it meant to live in the U.S., and my appreciation for life itself.  Ten years ago, serving as the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Director of Electronic Communication, I found out that something was wrong when Alison Miller, now a minister and then, an intern in our stewardship office, ran through the hall saying that New York was under attack.  Alison was a native of New York, so this was personal for her.  I tried to bring up CNN on my browser.  Nothing.  The New York Times – wouldn’t load.  NBC news – same story.  I knew that we were experiencing a major crisis, just because of that.

As the horrible events of the day unfolded, we all watched the grainy television in the staff lounge in horror.  For a while, we thought that one of our staff members was on one of the planes that went down.  With huge relief, we found out that – at the last minute – she had taken an earlier flight to the west coast.  Our President, Bill Sinkford, was in Washington, DC.  We learned that he would speak at All Souls Church that night, and that, along with a beautiful reflection from Meg Riley on how we talk with our children about such tragedies, became the beginning of UUA.org’s extensive coverage of the tragic events.

Our building, next to the Massachusetts State House, was closed due to security concerns.  I went home, and with the one other staff person in our office, began outlining what our web coverage of this unspeakable disaster would be.  My routine was to work till I could not do so any longer, stop for food or to watch something on the news or to kiss my daughter (we were very careful not to watch television, listen to the radio, or have the papers out while Abby was around:  this is not the news you want to share with small children, we decided), and then work again.  I would fall into bed, exhausted, and rise three hours later, going back to work again.  My colleague, the parent of an infant, did the same.

Saddest of all, we decided to profile the Unitarian Universalists we could identify who had died on that horrible day.  I tracked down their survivors, and each phone call was the same.  I would introduce myself, offer them my deepest condolences on behalf of the Association, and then ask them to tell me about their loved one(s) who had died.  I asked for a photo, asked about memorial services.  I promised them we would not forget and vowed that I’d try to hold to my word on that one — offer the story of those people, their work, their lives, so that others might know them and also remember.  Then, I would hang up the phone, sob, and write the profile of each person.

The work went on for weeks this way, as more features went up on the web, worship resources, commentary, and more.  We were gratified when the Library of Congress notified us that its Minerva Project had decided to archive our September 11, 2001 website to preserve our work.  Today, as we approach the anniversary, I look back on that archived UUA site and wonder how it was we managed all that coverage with two staff people and no other resources to speak of.

And now, I know that there is at least one other name that should be added to the list of those who died as a result of the attacks:  Drew Stein, a member of the congregation I attend (First Parish in Lexington, MA), died this summer.  Drew lived in Manhattan in 2001, and his death, from sarcoidosis, was a result of the asbestos and other toxins he inhaled after the attacks.  Drew will be remembered formally in a service at First Parish in the coming months, but I want to mention his name now, so that we all will remember him when we think back on 9/11.

In my head, I keep hearing the words to the best-known song from the musical, “Rent,” which asks, “How do you measure a year in the life? …In day light, in sunsets, in midnights, in cups of coffee, in inches, in miles, in laughter in strife…how about love?”  The people we lost — all those people who the New York Times remembered, and those, like Drew, who have died since that day — had lives we could measure in different ways.  Gone now, I believe they mattered, that they were loved, loved others, and that we will continue to remember them.

On Sunday, I’ll be standing on the Battle Green in Lexington at 6 PM with members of many faith communities to mark the tenth anniversary.  I will think about those good people, what possibilities life yet holds for all of us who call the United States home, and I will remember.

I, like most of the people I know, am forever changed by what happened ten years ago.  I do not take things for granted; I try to look for the gifts each day holds.  And I know that the value of my life is always best measured in love.

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We’ve been subjected to the big news stories lately that focus not on how the US economy is doing in its painful recovery, or whether peace in the Middle East is finally being achieved, but instead, on Arnold Schwarzenegger’s scuzzy affair with a member of his domestic staff, and on the International Monetary Fund head’s attack on a hotel maid.

While these might make for just another week of “ho-hum” headlines in People Magazine and other celebrity and gossip publications, the revelations seem to have also resulted in more college students coming forward to say that, when they were raped or taken advantage of on college campuses, their concerns were met with disdain or just plain ignored. This is hardly a new situation.

When I was a college student at a women’s school in the early 1970’s, I found myself seduced by an attractive college professor.  I was invited to go look at church pews with him in Bennington, Vermont, that he said he wanted for his house or for the college’s black box theater.  Thrilled to be asked, I said yes.  We went back to his house afterward, and — his wife away on business — he mixed me a drink that was full of frozen fruit and a lot of alcohol.  Before I knew it, he was all over me, and I succumbed.  I was young, inexperienced, eager, unsophisticated, and a lot more.  I didn’t report the encounter, because I felt that I had been complicit in allowing it to happen and that nothing would be done.

Several months later, another professor, who periodically invited his students to dinner at his home, invited me to such a meal.  I was thrilled and dressed up, thinking it was one of those dinner parties.  He picked me up at my dorm, and I was surprised — and concerned — to find that no one else was at the house… a house far away from campus, out in the woods.  Nervous, I chattered away, and we had dinner — a Mongolian Hot Pot, as I recall.

As he showed me around his house, I was somewhat relieved when we got to the bedroom and I saw the bed turned down, with a book on the bed.  “Phew,” I thought to myself.  “Your concerns were taking over.  This guy is planning to go to bed, alone, and read.  No problem.”  Wrong.  Before I knew it, as I turned around to leave the room, I was pushed down on the bed, and raped.

I didn’t report it.  I felt as though I should have known better, should have realized what was going on, should have asked more questions, should have…. Stupid, stupid, stupid.  It was a different time, and I was naive, and very young.

But still, I ask myself as I read about the situations college students continue to encounter, and the unsatisfactory response colleges make to their claims of harassment or rape:  why has nothing much changed?  Why do students still find that they are demeaned or ostracized if inappropriate behavior is encountered?  And why do jokes about ‘rape’ get thrown around, even — in some social situations — by children in their early teens?  What is it that makes a man — a man as powerful and well known as Dominique Strauss-Kahn — think that it’s OK to walk out of the shower, chase the hotel maid around, and force himself on her?

All of these situations — whether they involved a movie star and a housekeeper, a financial magnate and a hotel maid, or a college professor and his student — were, at some level, also about the use of power in situations where both players were not on a level field.  People of influence and authority engaged with, and used their authority and power over, people in subordinate positions.

I was never a big part of the so-called ‘women’s liberation’ movement as it grew in this country.  Nor was I a ‘stand by your man, no matter what’ kind of woman.  I have always believed that individuals deserve to be treated with respect, whether they are hotel maids, housekeepers, college students, or kids on a playground.  Why is that so hard to embrace?  And why does it seem that we are doomed to continue to read headlines that show us, over and over again, that ‘respect and dignity’ is something we must wish for, rather than embrace as truth, in our lives?

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Last week, NPR (National Public Radio) committed ‘news’ when they terminated the contract of news analyst Juan Williams for remarks he made on Fox’s The O’Reilly Factor about Muslims.  This was a move which brought both cheers and boos from all those commenting, with cheers coming from many media analysts who asked why it took NPR so long to act, and boos coming from conservative political apologists like Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich as well as Williams’ considerable fan base.

NPR’s Ombudsman Alicia Shepard notes that the firing of Williams brought forth a firestorm of controversy, which much of the anger levelled at NPR.  More than 8,000 emails regarding the firing were received, more than for any other incident taken up by the network, enough to crash the email response program used for collecting such user feedback.  People were, and are, mad as hell.

Since then, people have been posting pictures of Muslims who are part of all walks of life on Facebook or their blogs, showing some wearing traditional religious clothing, others not (to illustrate, they say, that Muslims are part of all fabrics of our life and can be religious people no matter what their attire); reaming NPR for their actions, applauding Fox for increasing Williams’ air time on their network in the aftermath; and declaring war on the public funding NPR receives to keep it on the air.  It’s ugly and in some cases, petty, and once again, the liberals are lining up against the conservatives to wage social warfare.

Whatever side of this issue you land on — whether you liked Juan Williams and his commentaries on NPR or his role on Fox; whether the President of NPR picked a really bad time to take action or not; whether you think NPR should receive public funding or not; it seems to me that many folks have just missed the boat on the essentials of this matter.  Juan Williams was hired to be a news analyst on NPR.  He was not hired to be a commentator (to offer his opinion) on stories, but to probe them in greater depth to help us understand them.  Daniel Schorr, now of blessed memory, was also a news analyst, and Ted Koppel, late of ABC, has filled that role as well.  Both Schorr and Koppel have performed admirably in this role, bringing deeper perspective to a story to help listeners gain understanding.

Providing analysis requires you to delve into a story but not to offer your opinion.  And NPR rightfully should expect that if one of their employees accepts a position on another network, his work there will not conflict with his role working for NPR.  This was not the first time Williams had drawn controversy for expressing his opinions.  Whether NPR waited too long to take action, or took action precipitously as a knee-jerk response to Williams’ appearance on Mr. O’Reilly’s program, may be fodder for other columns.

For me, however, there should be little debate about the key issue:  Juan Williams forgot, or ignored, the requirements of his position at NPR and became part of the story he was discussing with Bill O’Reilly.  That may be what Fox wants from him, and if so, I hope that Williams and Fox and O’Reilly have a long and happy and fruitful relationship.  But NPR was right to expect and demand that their employees not cross the line by inserting themselves into the stories they cover.  This is basic journalism 101 for reporters and broadcasters, and it should not be mysterious to anyone, least of all a media veteran.

Let us, then, maintain our focus on the essentials of the matter – what any media outlet requires of its reporters and analysts (as different from commentators expressing opinion).  And let all who act as spokespeople for businesses or as reporters or analysts for media outlets remember that you simply can not have it both ways.

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I have felt growing dismay over the news coming from a Pew survey released in early August which shows that a growing number of Americans(18%)  believe Barack Obama to be Muslim, and (separate question and response) an increasing number also believe that Obama is not Christian.  Over 40% of those surveyed do not know what Obama’s faith tradition is, despite the fact that he regularly attended a United Church of Christ congregation prior to being elected president.

And a recent CNN survey revealed that more than 25% of those surveyed believed that Obama was either definitely or probably not born in this country (the so-called “birther” movement).  Meanwhile Sarah Palin, pundit and perhaps-candidate, has urged various political conservatives and talk show hosts to “lock and reload.”  When pressed, she’ll insist she’s just telling people to not back down, but the violent language sends a shiver down my spine.

Words are powerful.  In an information age where we’re all authorities, those who have mastered the media can promote their point of view and pass that perspective off as fact.  But it’s also true that people don’t generally invent the things they believe from whole cloth.  Those beliefs come from someone, from somewhere, and the question of where we get our news from, and what we accept on face value — rather than check out before making an informed decision — has everything to do with what we deem fact and what remains fiction.

But these recent statistics and news stories are deeply troubling to me.  In an age when we were proclaimed, with Obama’s election, to have moved past racism and segregation and discrimination, the ugly truth reveals that we have so far to go.  In a time when we like to give lip service to being “one country,” we are attacking Muslims who want to build a community center in New York, and Sikhs who wear turbans are verbally and sometimes physically harrassed, threatened, and subject to firing without cause.

Years ago, the Rogers and Hammerstein musical “South Pacific” song, “You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught,” offered us a scene in which Lieutenant Cable sings,

“You’ve got to be taught
to be afraid
Of people whose eyes
are oddly made
And people whose skin
is a different shade
You’ve got to be carefully taught

You’ve got to be taught
before it’s too late
Before you are 6 or 7 or 8
To hate all the people
your relatives hate
You’ve got to be carefully taught.”

“South Pacific” was produced in 1949, based on James Michener’s “Tales of the South Pacific,” and debuted in a United States recovering from World War II and approaching the dawn of McCarthyism.  Rogers and Hammerstein were attacked for putting this song in their show, but they steadfastly insisted that it remain.  Good thing, but how discouraging is it to find that, more than sixty years later, we haven’t changed all that much?   This country managed to elect an African American President of the United States less than two years ago, but the smears, the campaign of misinformation, the cheap shots and lies, have all remained and, I believe, grown.

How is it that so many in our country can continue to believe that the President is not an American citizen, despite clear evidence to the contrary?  And why would people repeatedly maintain that Obama, despite his multiple statements to the contrary, is a Muslim rather than the Christian he says he is?  “Don’t bother me with the facts, Son, I’ve already made up my mind,” was a saying coined by a cartoon character decades ago.  It seems that in the digital age where rumor now passes freely as fact, the saying remains true.  Words have power and authority, and more and more — in a time when fewer people read newspapers and more get their “news” from television or the web — the things people say can be taken for fact.

I troll social media regularly, reading Twitter feeds, posting sometimes, checking out newspaper headlines and conventional wisdom on social networking sites.  But I try hard to check out the facts before repeating them.  Otherwise I’d be subject to doing what we did as kids so long ago:  playing a game of ‘telephone’ where we stand in a line, repeat things, one to another, and then wonder how it is that the original message got so darned convoluted at the end of the line. Surely, as individuals and as a nation, we owe ourselves, and others, more consideration.

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In May, I posted on this topic with thoughts on why the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) should not to action to pull its General Assembly (GA) out of Phoenix (2012) in protest of the repressive Arizona law, SB1070.  In June, the General Assembly did vote to gather in 2012 in Phoenix for a GA that will be different from others and acutely focused on social justice issues and partnership-building with organizations including Puente.

But 2012’s a long way off, and it would be easy for an organization, or individuals, to lose focus around these issues.  Fortunately the enactment of SB1070, and the commitment to witness for justice shown by Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray, minister of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Phoenix, and others, has not allowed this to happen.

On July 29, responding to a call put out by Frederick-Gray, Sal Reza of Puente, and others, more than 200 UU leaders and lay people committed to social justice went to Phoenix and other cities to put their money, and in many cases, their bodies, where their mouths were.  29 UUs were arrested in Phoenix, dragged off to the jail of the repressive Sheriff Joe Arpaio, and given a taste of the Sheriff’s form of justice.

UUA Moderator Gini Courter and others had helped to prepare those who would be arrested by writing the phone number of a lawyer on their arms in black marker, so that when all possessions were taken away, the phone number would remain.  From what I could observe, everyone present was prepared for a long seige.  UUA President Peter Morales was one of those arrested, and during the night, while he and other protestors sat in jail awaiting arraignment, those who remained free stood outside the jail, holding vigil through the night.

All this is a far cry from the kind of public witness the UUA used to engage in.  Although a successful “Back Alley March” was held in Milwaukee, WI in 1990 as part of the GA to lend support to the efforts of the National Organization for Women (NOW) and other groups to ensure the right to safe and accessible abortion services, the next year (1991) brought a paltry gathering down to the beaches of Hollywood, FL where a few placards were raised and waived — with no press in evidence — in support of ecological protections.  By 1993 an event to oppose North Carolina sodomy laws and support the rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people had been organized, with a great deal of UU support — but the timing of the event was so late that the daily news cycle had ended before the demonstration began and mostly, those demonstrating were talking to themselves.

Thanks to the continuing work of UUA’s public witness team, the expert coaching of communication consultant Helio Fred Garcia, and the deep commitment of many people of faith, things have changed over the years.  A shout-out is due to Susan Leslie and Audra Friend of the UUA’s Advocacy and Witness staff group, who have had primary responsibility for organizing the GA public witness events of the last several years.  Leslie and Friend were in evidence in Arizona as well last week, along with the UUA’s Standing on the Side of Love (SOSL) team, helping UU leaders select gathering spots, making sure that word got out to the outside world.  The SOSL bright yellow T-shirts were everywhere, ensuring that when people protested or were dragged away, the media and Unitarian Universalists would know that it was one of ours being hauled off.

Effective public witness, as Garcia frequently says, “needs to be both public, and witnessed.”  While that makes for one of those “duh” moments – how literal do we need to get here? – it’s not always easy to pull off.  Too many times, multiple agendas and good intention have served to undermine the desire to make an impact in the Public Square.  Effective witness calls for deep grounding in the fundamental principles of faith, the opportunity to make something happen that will be noticed, and a natural fit with the organization engaging in action.

This time, the UUA got it right from one end to the other.  The partnerships formed with Puente and other organizations have been intentional and healthy.  I believe that organizations on the ground in Arizona know that they can count on the Unitarian Universalists, and others of faith, to stand with them as they fight for justice.  Opinion pieces from UU leaders showed up in The Huffington Post and elsewhere prior to July 29.  Those involved in the demonstrations were tweeting, Facebooking, blogging, producing videos, taking photos that they uploaded to the web immediately.  Reporters (print, radio, internet, TV) were present.  The story got out.

This is not an end, it’s a beginning.  There will have to be much more…more relationship-building, more education, more demonstrations and almost surely, more arrests, all leading to the 2012 Phoenix GA.  But this is what witnessing the faith is about.

The UUA is preparing to celebrate its fiftieth anniversary.  Early in the UUA’s history (borne out of the consolidation of the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America), Rev. Dana Greeley, the first UUA President, asked ministers to respond to the call of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. to come to Selma and witness their commitment to civil rights and justice for all.  Many went and marched over the Edmund Pettus Bridge, arm in arm, and one died for the cause.  In 2010, ministers and lay people responded to Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray’s call and went to Phoenix to stand for the civil rights of those who come to this country in search of a better life.

From where I sit, it seems like the UUA has come full circle in its understanding of how to witness the faith.  As UU minister Kendyl Gibbons wrote, “the time is now, the place is here…[there is] no other world” but this one, calling out for effective witness in support of simple justice for all our people.

Watch:

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Years ago, my best friend in high school said to me, “Did you know that Time Magazine is coming to do a story on our drama club?  How cool is that?”  I took the bait, hook, line, and sinker.  After all, we had a great drama club, with a wonderful teacher.  Our high school had been hit (like other school in the late 1960’s) by some very bad racially-motivated disruptions and one riot — a terrifying episode with chairs being thrown in the cafeteria and kids running from the school to get out — and I thought, “oh, they want to come tell a story about all the good stuff going on here!”  I had the rationale figured out, and of course, I told lots of other people this good news.

Except, of course, that it wasn’t true.  I had been snookered, and I felt totally stupid for having believed the story.  I should have known better.

OK, I was a high school kid, and a gullible one at that.  But why is it, please, that a lot of high-placed government officials, including a cabinet secretary for crying out loud, exercised no more skepticism or discernment than that high school kid of long ago?  The Shirley Sherrod story could have been checked out in an hour or less.  Andrew Breitbart is not a stealth right-wing operative, his motives and methods are very well documented.  And he’d already brought down the community group, Acorn, and another White House employee, Van Jones.  And it’s not like we don’t know the direction in which Fox News (or, as Keith Olbermann calls them, “Fix News”) goes in.

Shouldn’t there have been some little voice in the back of someone’s head, when this whole scuzzy story came up, that said, “Check it out.  Don’t be pushed by the 24-hour news cycle and the requests for immediate comment.  Wait and do your homework.”  One of the things I’ve told friends and clients, over and over again is:  “when the media calls and asks for comment, don’t feel compelled to provide an immediate response.  Do your background work first.  Make sure you know your own talking points.  Take the time to say what you really want to say, rather than what is demanded by the news outlets.”

Well, the USDA and others obviously weren’t listening to me or others who could have given them the same advice, and now all of us who care about human rights, race relations, and effective government, plus all of Obama’s media operatives, have an embarrassing mess to deal with.  Ms. Sherrod lost her job in a very public way, there’s been a whole lot of apologizing and backpedalling going on, and Andrew Breitbart gets lots more media attention, which he craves.  All for want of an hour of research and a little deliberate consideration.

A former boss of mine, a minister who has a deep understanding of effective public witness, once suggested that the very first goal of public relations should be “to not look stupid.”  I’m with him on that:  it’s like when physicians take an oath to “first, do no harm.”  Whatever else there is comes after that.  Beyond “don’t look stupid,” however, should be these:
– Do your homework.  Not to write a term paper, but to make sure you know who is behind a rumor and who else is driving it.  And research those other people who turn up, too.
– Talk to those likely to be affected first.  If you’re feeling like a statement needs to be made on closing the widget plant in East Galumph, talk to the Mayor of East Galumph before you tell the newspaper you’re taking action.  It’s not only responsible, it’s considerate and logical and it avoids unpleasant surprises.
– Make sure you have your talking points in place, and use them.  Choose no more than three, be sure that you have them clearly in your brain, and don’t get distracted by other points that the media might raise.  Stay on message.
– If requests for more comments come, stay focused on the work that is yours to do, and don’t cave in to threats, slimey comments, or other tactics to induce you to make a statement.
– Model responsible behavior and treat your colleagues and employees fairly.

Sometimes I feel like these things are regarded as a far stretch, or too time-consuming or difficult to accomplish.  But why?  This is simple logic, and it can save an awful lot of mess and tsouris later. Not to mention ugly charges of racism and discriminatory practices.  Just ask Tom Vilsack or Shirley Sherrod.

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