On lying as a PR strategy; or, sex, lies and drug tests

I wasn’t going to write about the downfall of Indiana Congressman Mark Souder, latest in a long series of religious, “family values” advocates caught valuing his carnal urges over his marriage and family. I don’t get mad about these horny hypocrites any more, although the irony of preaching ‘family values’ while bedding a younger staffer is striking.

At least we didn’t have the wronged wife, beautifully dressed, smiling bravely next to him as he gave his tearful resignation—and where he obliquely blamed Washington and those criticizing him for his transgression. He claims the Mrs. wanted to be there, but why should we believe him now?

I also wasn’t going to write about Democratic Senate candidate Mark Blumenthal’s claim that he “misspoke” when he said he served in Vietnam.

‘”On a few occasions, I have misspoken about my service and I regret that. And I take full responsibility,” said Blumenthal…”But I will not allow anyone to take a few misplaced words and impugn my record of service to our country.”’

Yeah, right. There’s a big difference between serving “during” the Vietnam war and actually going there, only to come home and be ridiculed and spit on in the airport. (Ask my brother about that and see what he says.)

So again, we’ve got the liar blaming others and really only showing regret that he got caught, and deflecting blame onto the people criticizing him.

What prompted me to write is the news that Floyd Landis, dethroned 2006 Tour de France winner, is finally coming clean about his doping. Well, sort of.

He’s admitted taking performance enhancing drugs throughout his career, but still maintains the test that busted him from the Tour de France podium was flawed, and that he never used synthetic testosterone that season.

And in the same breath he names Lance Armstrong a fellow doper.

So this is his strategy—admit to generalized wrongdoing while maintaining innocence in a specific case, and then deflect the attention onto a bigger name in the sport just to make sure your story makes front page news. It’s an interesting twist on the “Express regret but admit no wrongdoing” theory of public relations adopted by so many politicians and celebrities. And it’s a unique way of blaming someone else.

Full disclosure: I’m a long distance cyclist and a real fan of Lance Armstrong, and I find it hard to believe anybody who went through the cancer treatment he survived would intentionally put any harmful substance into his body. The man is driven, out to prove something, making a difference in cancer awareness, and has an incredible work ethic. He’s also arguably the most drug-tested athlete in the world. This is a man whose wife was in labor, and as they were getting into the car to go to the hospital were interrupted by the WADA crew demanding a sample. He’s won lawsuits against people who made doping accusations before, and he’s never failed a drug test. Until I hear otherwise from Lance himself, I believe he’s clean. Everyone else’s accusations are sour grapes.

I was also a great fan of Landis, and this is why I’m so mad: I gave money to his defense fund. I shook his hand and had my photo taken with him. He looked me in the eye and thanked me for my support as he signed my Richardson Bike Mart jersey. I stood in the store—decorated with Tour de France memorabilia given to the owners by their friend and loyal customer Lance Armstrong—and listened to Floyd and his lawyer talk about the case they had against the charges.

And I believed him.

I spoke to a former pro cyclist with knowledge of doping—he’s now battling Multiple Sclerosis—and he said there was no way Landis would have taken testosterone as a one day drug enhancement. He also talked about how the Tour de France’s chain of custody for samples is so bad they could have mixed up a dog urine sample with Floyd’s and never known it. So everything pointed to a setup.

Now it appears those of us who contributed to his $2 million dollar defense fund—cyclists, trainers, bike shop owners, and fans—are the ones who were set up. And the timing–during the Tour de California and Giro d’Italia and the run up to the Tour de France–is suspect as well.

And I’m mad. I’m sure the bike shop owners who organized appearances and loyal fans are mad. The little kids who broke open their piggy banks and gave money for Floyd’s defense are mad. The media are mad. The French are mad (OK, they’re always mad about something). The entire clean portion of the cycling world is mad, because Landis’ accusations cast aspersions on everyone involved, not just those caught, and not just on Lance Armstrong.

Floyd’s PR strategy is working though—he has ensured that whether or not he rides in this year’s big European races, he’ll be the talk of the Tour for a long time. For those who believe there’s no such thing as bad publicity, Floyd is winning without ever getting on a bike.

Some thoughts on my first semester as a full-time “professor.”

I always thought I’d end up teaching someday, but it’s funny how I backed into it. I now feel comfortable referring to it as my “third career” after first working in television, then in public relations for more than 20 years. I’m grateful to my students for helping me figure out how to teach, and I’m grateful to the Mayborn School of Journalism at UNT (one of my alma maters) for inviting me back to teach again. I think I’ve found my niche, even though I’m working harder, and longer hours, than I have in 15 years or more.

Not since I worked for the Galveston Bay Foundation have I had a job where I feel like I was making a difference. And as I watch what’s happening on the coast with the oil spill, I feel an incredible emotional bond with everyone affected by that spill. It’s tough to be so far away and feel so helpless. But more on that in the next blog.

So, while I’m pretty sure I taught my kids a few things this semester, what did I learn? Oh, so much.

First of all, I learned that I love the kids. They’re bright, they’re energetic, they’re motivated and they’re funny. I’m grateful they didn’t appear to think this old broad was a total dork for trying to be “hip” and relate to them, and I’m glad they seemed to enjoy my PR war stories. I’ve never been one to act my age, and I think they’ve gone a long way toward keeping me young. The kids taught me things about their generation, about the youth culture, and about what’s inside their heads. I really mean it when I tell them I hope they all keep in touch.

Next I learned that my time management skills aren’t what they should be. All the faculty told me the first semester’s the hardest, and I’m sure that’s true. There was a big difference between teaching one graduate level class (with 10 students) and teaching three required heavy writing classes and one capstone ethics class, all with upper-level students. In a few weeks, from contract confirmation to first day of class, I had to read six books (not including the ones I read and rejected for one class), prepare lectures, syllabi, figure out what to put on tests, get an office organized and learn a couple of new computer systems.

I also learned that it takes longer to grade stuff than I ever dreamed possible. Some of that is my fault—I can’t just scribble a few margin notes and put a grade on the page. I need to explain what they did wrong, tell them what I like, and coach them into becoming better writers. I edit the papers, ask questions (“What were you thinking?” and “Do you own a thesaurus?” were two of my favorites) and make the occasional snarky comment designed to show them the error of their ways. The ethics class required ensuring they understood the concepts as well as write about them. I’m so grateful the kids were patient with me when it took too long to return their work.

I learned that Mulberry Street is named for the mulberry trees and it’s not a good idea to park there during the spring. Purple grackle poop is probably not good for car paint.

There were days when I felt like I was only 4 pages ahead of the kids, then a tenured professor told me that happens all the time, even with experience. I’m grateful that I never woke up one morning with no clue what I would teach that day—I’m told that has happened to many busy, experienced professors. Fortunately my decades of professional experience were easy to draw on, too.

I appreciate the kids letting me treat them like young professionals, rather than mere students. As seniors working at internships in PR firms, nonprofits, and large corporations, they ARE pros already, and deserve to be treated as such, but still in need of mentoring and coaching. I collaborated with them, and we learned many things together.

I am eternally grateful to have a husband who, first and foremost, knows his way around the kitchen without a map and second, knows how to do laundry. I would have starved to death and looked like a homeless person without him. (I did lose 15 pounds this semester.)

So it was with some genuine sadness mixed with pride that I attended graduation today, live Tweeting from the faculty rows and cheering on my graduating seniors as they walked across the stage, waving and smiling to family and friends. I’m sad that I won’t see you in my classroom, or hanging out in my office, but proud that I was able to play a small part in your transformation from student to professional.

Please stay in touch, Class of 2010. And remember, punctuation goes INSIDE the quotes.

Some thoughts on the holidays and the end of the year.

First of all, I’m losing my mind over the Associated Press and other news organizations designating all of the “_________ of the decade” distinctions as we come to the end of 2009. The decade isn’t over. When you count to ten, do you start with 0 and end with nine? I didn’t think so. I rest my case. We’ve got another year on the decade. Deal with it. And Lance Armstrong is the athlete of the decade, no matter when it ends.

That said, I’m noticing a little different feeling with the holidays this year. People are cutting back and in the process, focusing on the reason for the season. In the interest of full disclosure, due to our financial implosion of the last couple of years, we’ve scaled back on the holiday spending. And you know what? Life went on. In the process, we focused more on church, on family and friends, and on spiritual development as we await the celebration of the birth of Christ. And the last couple of Christmases have been the best ever.

Last year, we drove to Guanajuato Mexico and celebrated with my Mexican family there, where the focus is on Christmas Eve Mass and family gatherings, rather than presents and fancy decorations and one-upsmanship. We were taken in by a family, participated in a posada (a children’s re-enactment of Mary’s and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem and their search for lodging) and attended the most memorable Christmas Mass of our lives at the glorious Basilica of Our Lady of Guanajuato. The love of our savior and the love for our savior permeated every celebration we attended. We feel blessed to have been embraced by such a wonderful group of people in this most beautiful of Mexican cities.

This year, with Bill in RCIA (the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, which for those of you who are not Catholic, is the process of converting to Catholicism) and us both busy with classes and job searches, as well as dealing with the recent death of his dad, we’ve focused exclusively on the spiritual side of Christmas. I haven’t set foot in a mall, department store, big box store, or gift shop in months. I haven’t bought one present, although I’ve made treats and given them to people I want to share them with. I finally put up the Christmas tree and have the nativity scenes out, but that’s it. And you know what? I feel better about this Christmas than I ever have, because this year, I think we’ve got it right.

Because it’s not about the stuff.

We can buy stuff any time we want. We should reward our friends and loved ones with little gifts and thoughtful acts throughout the year, not just at Christmas and birthdays. We should thank people for their support of us and love for us all year long, not just when society and the media tell us we should. We should tell those people who mean the most to us that they’re special, and an important part of our lives whenever it’s appropriate, not just at holiday time.

In other words, we shouldn’t single out one time of the year to tell people they’re wonderful or to be nice and generous to those less fortunate. We should be this generous, this loving, and this spiritual all year long.

How about that for a 2010 New Year’s resolution? Anybody up for it? I am.

The Wizard of Oz and the Best of the Southwest Communicators Conference

I finished out February by spending two days with public relations professionals from five states attending the Best of the Southwest Communicators Conference, presented by the Texas Public Relations Association and the PRSA Southwest District. It was well-organized, well-attended by professionals and students, and contained some great content, especially regarding strategic uses for social media. I really enjoyed networking and reconnecting with the old gang from Houston, where I practiced PR for nearly 20 years.

But there was one presentation that continues to eat at me. I had chosen this session because it covered a topic I hadn’t worked with in a number of years, and I saw it as a refresher as well as a chance to see how to apply new media to this topic. The room was full of veterans, mid-level, and beginning practitioners as well as a fair number of college students. I settled in between two gal-pals, one a college senior majoring in public relations, the other one a professor of PR at that same university (and like me, APR).

The speaker was a jovial professional with a distinguished career in news reporting before opening up a PR shop in Dallas. I had heard the name, and was anxious to hear what he had to offer. He used lots of visuals and war stories to punctuate his presentation.

Early on, after discussing an issue with multiple spokespersons, he said something like “make sure everyone gets together and gets their lies straight.” Madame professor looked at me in horror and scowled. Because I am often too willing to give people the benefit of the doubt, I whispered that I thought he was joking. It was, after all, late in the day on the 2nd day of the conference. However, nobody was laughing.

Our worst fears were confirmed during the Q&A session. In response to a question about dealing with bloggers criticizing your company or client, the speaker said something along the lines of “Oh yes, we’ll respond to a blogger. We won’t tell them who we are, but we’ll make our position known.”

Madame professor and I immediately started scribbling notes to each other and her student that this is a clear violation of the PRSA Code of Ethics. (See http://www.prsa.org/aboutUs/ethics/psaPS8.html and http://www.prsa.org/aboutUs/ethics/preamble_en.html ) If anybody else in the room was still awake enough to notice though, they didn’t say anything.

I now really wish I’d challenged the guy, but I wimped out. I’ve been thinking about it all week. I blew a chance to set the students in the room straight about the PRSA Code of Ethics, and remind all the professionals there too. Whether it’s because I was tired, afraid of confrontation, or just so amazed that the organizers didn’t vet this speaker better, I kept my mouth shut and instead exchanged notes with my seat partners like a group of schoolgirls. But I wanted to gather all the students and neophytes together, like a mother duck protecting her brood, and tell them this is not the way to practice PR. I blew my chance because I was afraid of being impolite.

This speaker reminded me of the Wizard of Oz—not the one who had Dorothy quaking in her ruby slippers, but the one behind the curtain. The guy playing with all the levers, pulling all the switches. The faker. The blowhard.

Blowhards like this guy are what give the entire public relations profession a black eye, and worse. And despite Sarbanes-Oxley and the fallout from the Enron scandal, the business world, including some in the PR world, still hasn’t learned that truthfulness is an essential business strategy. We watch Madoff and Stanford and some of our greatest American companies struggle with the truth in their business practices and ultimately in their PR practices, and we’re amazed at the damage they do and how they get away with it. And they get away with it because the media and the public assume their PR machines have gotten their lies straight.

In this age of citizen journalists, social networking and messaging at the speed of light, ethics, truthfulness and transparency are more vital than ever. Witnesses to events all have cell phone cameras and a means of communicating with them. Disloyal employees abound, and are only too willing to Tweet about the twits in the corner office, especially if they feel management is lying about something. In a viral world, there’s no such thing as confidential communications. Gone is the 24 hour news cycle to give everyone a chance to meet and, to use the presenter’s phrase, “get your lies straight.” Oh, yeah, you can try and cover something up, but sooner or later the truth will come out. As we said during Watergate, “it’s not the crime, it’s the cover-up.”

I don’t know what the answer here is, and I’d love to hear everyone’s thoughts about this. I’m truly hoping the ethical PR practitioners out there will keep leading by example, adhering to what’s ethical and right, even when it means risking a job or client. (And yes, I have quit a job over ethics.)

And let’s all grow the gonads and backbone to do what I didn’t do—challenge somebody who blatantly advocates unethical practices in business and PR.