Let’s never forget we are ALL Americans

Once again we are remembering what happened 12 years ago today. And while it–like the Kennedy Assassination, the first Moon landing, and many other historical events during my 58 years on this planet–remain ingrained in my memory, I feel strangely detached from it today. And that’s bad.

Yes, I changed my Facebook cover photo to a 9/11 photo and my profile pic to something more somber for the day. The flag is out and I have a 9/11 photo on my Twitter profile. I’ve resurrected my blog post from September 11, 2009 reminiscing about the day.

MSNBC is repeating their coverage from that morning, in real time, as if it were playing out live. That’s really surreal.

Two years ago, for the tenth anniversary (“anniversary” sounds so crass), I was interviewed by Eric Adelson for Yahoo News about the terrorist attacks and how the existence of social media might have changed things that day–news coverage, families messaging each other, last goodbyes. It’s all speculation of course, and most of it was too awful to contemplate. I still remember that phone interview, and how Eric was so concerned about covering the story with sensitivity. He’s a sports reporter–and a good one–but recounted how he and his family were talking about 9/11 and the ways they found out about the attacks that day, and he decided to write about it in terms of social media. He said he wrestled with the idea of doing a story, because it’s still so raw for all of us. think we can all imagine what social media would be like if, God forbid, something like this ever happened again. We’ve seen it with all kinds of disasters, big and small, local and regional. Good and bad people get on social media and the online universe goes nuts–and that sometimes becomes the story itself.

Divided or Separate?

For a time after 9/11/2001 we were one nation, united in front of a common enemy. Today we are more divided than ever, and that’s sad. We’re winding down the second of two unproductive, unwinnable wars since 2001 and debating starting a third. Our nation’s finances are a shambles, Congress won’t do anything but disagree with the other side and nobody else can agree on anything except perhaps that Miley Cyrus is controversial right now. Development of the 9/11 Memorial Museum was riddled with controversy. So on this day of commemorations, resolutions, memorials, and probably some tasteless newsjacking by some clueless marketing person with a fast Twitter trigger, take five minutes to watch this video and remember we are all Americans.

As Tiny Tim of Dickens fame said, “God Bless us, Everyone.”

The Seismic Shift in Public Relations Measurement

Over the past few years the world of public relations has gone through a radical change in the way program success is measured. The days of measuring how much space your press release occupied in the paper and calculating how much it would have cost to buy an equivalent sized ad are fading fast (for the most part). Ad Value Equivalency has been considered a bogus means of measuring public relations success for a variety of reasons. The simplest reason I cite is it assumes an ad can be purchased and placed in that location in the paper. This is not usually the case with front page stories. More important, AVE doesn’t measure any business outcomes–the number of widgets sold, for example.

The use of AVE in PR measurement has been debated for decades, and was questioned as far back as 1949. This article by Professor Tom Watson gives a history of AVE and its controversial evolution and (I hope) demise. It is still in use. Many executives and nonprofit board members insist on it because it’s simple to understand. Respected monitoring companies still use it, mainly to keep their competitors from stealing customers who insist on AVE as a measurement tool. But even they admit it’s bogus.

Things got serious in 2010 with the acceptance of the Barcelona Principles, which sound like an international treaty or trade agreement, but are the results of a major international effort to build industry consensus on measurement.

Working from that document, the International Association for the Measurement and Evaluation of Communications just released The PR Professional’s Definitive Guide to Measurement. The entire history of its development is long, and thoughtful. This is not a snap judgment by any means. It’s a seismic shift in communications evaluation. And it applies to social media as well.

A vocal proponent of outcome-based PR measurement is K.D. Paine, whose blog, The Measurement Standard, is a must-read for anybody in a field even remotely related to public relations.

Back in June she posted about The Conclave, a group of cross-industry professionals hammering out vendor-neutral standards for social media measurement. While these are not finalized yet, it looks like the world of public relations and the world of social media are getting their respective acts together regarding evaluation.

Originally posted on the Eagle Strategies blog, the class blog of the social media course I teach in the Mayborn School of Journalism at the University of North Texas.

Where’s the Outrage?

From a Reuters news report on Friday, May 24: “A study released by the Defense Department two weeks ago estimated that reports of unwanted sexual contact in the military, from groping to rape, rose 37 percent in 2012, to about 26,000 from 19,000 the previous year.” 
The numbers are staggering—and those are just REPORTED cases of unwanted sexual contact. According to Wikipedia there were more than 1,429,000 active-duty military in 2010, and 850,000 in the reserves. Women in the military are more likely to be sexually assaulted than killed in combat.

A recent NPR story had even more disturbing news: “…according to the latest Pentagon statistics, only 1,108 troops filed for an investigation during the most recent yearly reporting period. In that same period, 575 cases were processed–and of those, just 96 went to court-martial.” Military personnel interviewed indicated reporting a sexual assault and taking it to court martial meant the end of the victim’s military career.

Because I didn’t want to compare statistics from different years, I went to the Department of Defense website for an up-to-date answer of military strength. Clicking on the “Total Numerical Strength”link got me the page shown below:

Other government websites linked back to this same page, leaving me without accurate numbers to compare. So, while I can’t compare recent sexual assaults to current military strength, but I’ll try to estimate the impact of existing statistics by putting them into a perspective we can relate to.

If a city of approximately 1.4 million persons—say Phoenix or San Antonio—had 26,000 incidences of “unwanted sexual contact” reported to its police agencies, the citizenry would be in revolt, and rightly so.  That’s about 18 sexual assaults for every 1,000 citizens, or 1,800 per 100,000 citizens. Has any American city ever had a rate of sexual assaults that high? (Dallas reported 35 per 100,000 in 2011.) Has any city in the WORLD ever had one that high, except during times of insurgency?

So why isn’t this being taken more seriously by the military? Why are an estimated three rapes per hour tolerated by the military? Why isn’t the media all over this? Why are victims still being blamed? And why aren’t American citizens, especially those consumed with social morality and family values, raising a ruckus about this?  I’d like to hear your thoughts.

Why I’m changing my Academic Integrity Policy

After three and a half years of teaching at the university level, I still haven’t become as jaded as some professors.  I still think college students are in college to learn in order to flourish in a professional field of their choice after graduation.  Maybe I think the majority of students are like me—people who worked hard, partied too much on occasion, put all their focus on major courses and sometimes let the electives slide, while doing it all honestly. Granted, I was in college in the ‘70s, when computers were mainframes available only to the computer science majors, and photocopies cost up to 25 cents each and smelled funny.  Cheating was never anything I considered, and I’m guessing plagiarism was hard to catch and prove in the days before Google, Turnitin and online plagiarism checkers. The most widespread cheating I heard of in my undergraduate days was selling tests to students in subsequent semesters of that class.

My grad school days in the ‘80s weren’t much different. I was one of the few students in my program with a home computer, built in a garage in Richardson, Texas and running on an 8086 processor, the gold standard of the time. DOS was my friend and Windows was a curiosity. 
The campus computer lab was a bank of terminals connected to a mainframe, used only by students in classes with data analysis requirements.
Our department was innovative because we had a small computer lab with fewer than 10 Apple IIc computers available for our use.

These computers, along with first generation MacIntosh computers on faculty desks, were bought by a visionary faculty member with his personal funds and donated to the school. (I fund a scholarship I named after him.)

By then the cost of a photocopy was down to 10 cents a page, but Internet access was not widely available. If you wanted to do an online search you scheduled time with a research librarian who worked with you on key words to do a CompuServe search. The annotated bibliography and abstracts were then printed for you, and you got a deal if you could wait until 2:00 a.m. when bandwidth was cheap.  I paid $35 for one search and was accused by other students of paying someone to do my research—it was only when the chairman of the department, who had given me the online assignment for our readings class—stepped in to defend me that the criticism died down.

But I digress.
Today, students in classrooms have any number of gadgets available to them with access to the Internet and social media via cell or wifi. While some faculty still insist students turn off everything but their cardiac pacemakers and insulin pumps while in class, I have abandoned that battle.

I know in the days of paper, pen and cassette tape recorders I could zone out, doodle in margins, work on other assignments and generally ignore a professor without a smartphone, computer, tablet or MP3 player to distract me. So instead of fighting it, I tell them “You have a choice about how much you get out of this class. All I ask is that you be considerate of me, your fellow students and guest speakers. I also retain the non-negotiable right to shut you down if I realize you are working on an assignment for another class, Facebooking, or shopping online.”

So far, I haven’t had a problem. In fact, topics come up in class discussion that are settled through someone Googling the answer to a question or tweeting the link to an article cited. (Yes, I allow, even encourage live tweeting of class lectures, especially when I have guest speakers.)
So what does all this have to do with academic integrity? I’m not sure. I just enjoyed reminiscing about my college years.
My academic integrity policy has always followed my university’s policy, which provides several options for punishment. In most cases I file the report so it goes into the kid’s permanent record, and allow them to re-write the work. This is because many students mistakenly feel it’s OK to copy from their client’s website. (My PR students all must find a nonprofit organization to work with for all their writing projects.) In professional practice using material from the client’s website may be acceptable, especially if you also wrote the website copy, and want to keep a unified tone to your messaging. But my PR classes are writingclasses, so I need to know students can write, not copy and paste.
In a few rare and extreme cases, the penalties have been much greater. In one case I repeatedly warned a student about non-attribution of sources before finally nailing him/her for quoting book reviews from Amazon.com without attribution, and without finding the original source. I gave the student a zero on the assignment, and explained the policy for appeal, but the student never appealed. I guess he/she knew he/she was guilty and figured it wasn’t worth it.
In another case I busted a student for dual submission, which is submitting a piece from one course to another course without permission from the second instructor. This student’s excuse was that the first submission wasn’t graded because it was off topic, so he/she figured it wouldn’t hurt to submit it to my class the next semester. That wonderful little tool Turnitin flagged it, and it took a visit to the Dean of Students office for the student to realize my offer to let him/her re-write the assignment was an exceptionally generous offer—most professors would have given an automatic F on the assignment, if not the class.
This semester, however, convinced me to toughen up my stance, despite the liberal options offered by the university’s Office of Academic Integrity.
The project in question is a final project representing a significant percentage of the final grade in a required course. It’s also a group project.
Grading one component of the project I noticed a sudden change in the writing style and quality—as if someone else had written it. It was too polished, compared to the rest of the work in the piece. It also sounded vaguely familiar. I went to the Turnitin submission box and found the upload was incomplete, with this section omitted, so I typed the passages in question into a Word document and uploaded it to Turnitin.
Ding! Ding! Ding! Ding! Ding! We have a winner—a direct download from a website without so much as a change in the font.
My heart sank. It always does in situations like this, which mercifully are rare. But when it happens I feel betrayed, I feel the client has been betrayed, and I feel sorry for the student who, for whatever reason, chose to cheat. The other students in the class who did their own work are also betrayed.
Fast forward past the paperwork, the documentation, the unpleasant meeting with the group in which one student finally took full responsibility and begged me to not punish the whole group, past the hostile tweets and lengthy emails begging me to reconsider and offering “proof” of innocence that actually incriminated the student even more. These emails eventually turned dark and accusatory, full of Bible verses and accusations of bullying, racism and favoritism. Threatening comments made in another class made their way back to me and the administration. An appeal to the department chair and dean changed nothing—the student in question received a letter grade lower than his/her group members on the final project, which I felt was fair.
What transpired next was, I’m sure, the polar opposite of what the student hoped for. Yes, I got a “talking to” by the dean. And as much as that student hoped I got into trouble for singling him/her out for cheating, the “trouble” I got into was for being too nice.
You see, everybody above my pay grade felt I should have, at the least, given a ZERO for the entire project, which would definitely have resulted in a failing grade for this student. Most felt I should have given an automatic F in the class for the cheating, even though it was a portion of a project
I explained that with all the talk about retention I’ve resisted failing students in the past. I pointed out that I liked to turn these cases into teachable moments for the students, to turn them into better professionals. But in this case, with a student who showed no remorse, I decided to agree with the department chair and dean and take no prisoners in the future.
You cheat in my class, you’re done. You flunk. University policy allows for sanctions for “deliberate or negligent” instances of cheating. From now on, the sanctions will be the toughest possible. If they’re overturned on appeal, fine, but you’ve got to prove you didn’t cheat, and I don’t accuse anyone of cheating unless I have incontrovertible proof.
Yes, I’ve been too nice for the past three years. The vast majority of the few students I’ve “busted” for plagiarism have been contrite, admitted their sins, and never repeated them. But all it took was for one student to refuse to take responsibility for his/her actions and appeal up the food chain for me to realize being nice to students like this is a disservice to the honest students who do their work and pass or fail honestly. It’s a disservice to all in academia, and retention pressures notwithstanding, I refuse to lower the standards and pass someone who doesn’t do their own work. Plagiarism is a firing offense in the field of journalism. I’m not preparing students for the profession if I let them get away with it in school.
It’s a shame that one student (with administrativeencouragement) pushed me to this extreme, but it’s the right thing to do. Honest, hardworking students who do their own work in good faith won’t feel like the value of their degree is diluted by those who are only trying to get by in order to get a degree they didn’t really earn.

Warm Fruit Soup and The Better Part

Last night I joined a couple hundred ladies for a short “women’s conference” at my church. I really didn’t want to be there—I’m still grading papers, even at the end of spring break, laundry is undone and the house is a shambles—but the title was “Mary or Martha? Responding to Christ in Your Life.”

I had to go.
Christ in the House of Mary and Martha, Vermeer, 1654.
For those not familiar with the story, Martha and Mary of Bethany were sisters of Lazarus and friends of Jesus. Their story, told in the Gospel of Luke (10:38-42) involves Martha, who is busy preparing dinner and being a hostess, and her sister Mary (not the mother of Jesus), sitting at Jesus’ feet listening to his message. When Martha complains that Mary isn’t helping, Jesus gently points out that those details don’t matter, that Mary has chosen the better part.
Most modern women have a Martha complex. We want everything to be neat, orderly, clean, and perfect. We want to entertain in style and provide a gracious home for our families and guests. We plan, and we’re annoyed when plans blow up. We struggle to balance these desires with jobs, volunteer work, and perhaps marriage and/or motherhood.  The Martha/Mary story does not seem to resonate with men. It’s a girl thing.
So, what does this have to do with fruit soup?
The leader of the conference was a fellow parishioner named Andrea. She is the mother of 9 kids, and one awesome woman. She shared a number of stories about trying to live a Mary life in a Martha world, and her failures along with her successes were an inspiration.  But the story that stuck with me was the one about warm fruit soup.
Andrea is active in the Schoenstattmovement, a Marian mission started in Germany in 1914. She told a story related in a book by the founder of the movement, Father Joseph Kentenich. A young girl entered the novitiate at a convent in northern Germany. At the first meal, a bowl of warm fruit soup was placed in front of her. This was not anything she was used to eating, but the nun sitting next to her said she didn’t need to eat it. However, the mother superior was seated on the other side of her, and she said “You will be brave.”
Andrea challenged us to look for the examples of the “warm fruit soup” in our lives, and to overcome inner resistance and aversion to the unfamiliar. All of us who are “Marthas” want to have control of our lives, so we often resist change. What we need to do is find the courage to direct the emotions and passions we’re feeling in the right direction. If we connect our aversions to something we love, we can overcome them.
In the past week I’ve had to deal with coming home to a smoky, smelly mess in my kitchen which is still unexplained. Alzheimer’s hubby couldn’t tell me why my prized LeCreuset roasting plan was a blackened hulk, full of ash and the remains of a zipper, on the stove. At least the house didn’t burn down. Dear friends showed up to rescue the evening with awesome carryout from The Bowllery and a bottle of wine. Later that evening I hid the stove knobs and the oven knobs—we’ve had a few near misses there, too.
When I decided to cook on the stovetop a few days later, I turned on the stove and realized it doesn’t work anymore. It will get things warm, not hot.
Great, another thing to fix—another credit card bill.
We’ve had some power surges, and I’m guessing we have an electrical problem in the kitchen. I just pray the house doesn’t burn down before I figure out what it is and find the money to fix it.
The upside? I am now an expert at cooking noodles in the microwave.
Andrea’s fruit soup story has become a mantra in less than 24 hours. I even have a Post-it note over the bathroom mirror with “Warm Fruit Soup” written on it, to remind me to be brave and to decide what’s really worth getting worked up about, and what can be ignored.  Dipping into something new doesn’t have to be unpleasant or scary. It’s up to me to control my emotions, especially my response to them.
So the papers aren’t graded, there are too many shoes and books laying around the house, the yard looks like hell and the laundry isn’t folded. That’s OK. Like Martha, I’m trying to find the better part, to figure out what’s really important, and to pick my battles. To be more like her sister Mary.
And while we’re at it, here’s a German recipe for warm fruit soup that looks really interesting.

A Denton seminarian’s account of the new Pope’s introduction to the world

Below is a message from Joe Keating. Many of you might remember him as the former Youth Minister at St Mark Catholic Church. He is now in Seminary in Rome. Read his exciting account of all that happened Wednesday, March 13:

Dear Friends and Family,

This email started off as an update, and soon became a novel. What follows is an account of the events of yesterday from my point of view. If you have time to read it all, I hope that you will feel like you were there too. I carry all of you in my prayers, especially at joyful times such as these.

White Smoke

Yesterday began as an ordinary day, with Mass and seminary classes in the morning. After third hour, most of us made our way over to St. Peter’s square to watch the smoke come from the chimney at noon. But as I approached the square at about 10 minutes till noon, there were already crowds streaming away from the piazza. I asked someone, “did the smoke already go up?” “Sì, è nera,” he said. I was kind of shocked that it was early, but thankful that I didn’t miss the white smoke. 

My afternoon seminar was cancelled, so a few of us from my hall went back to the Square at 5:00 to pray and watch for potential white smoke after the first afternoon ballot. We prayed a rosary and sang a litany of the saints and a Marian hymn. It was raining on and off, but the Square was still packed with people (47% of whom were reporters :P). I can only imagine what the forest of umbrellas must have looked like from above! At 6:00 we rushed back to the College for Evening Prayer, then rushed straight back to the Square to see the smoke at 7:00.

White smoke from the Sistine Chape. (c) Boston Globe

At that point, many of us were expecting another round of black smoke. Thursday was the day I was betting on, and some were saying it would be Saturday or even sometime next week. After having seen the black smoke on Tuesday evening, I knew that there would be an initial puff of grayish smoke, followed by billowing black. I was chatting with my classmates when the smoke emerged at around 7:05. My thoughts went in rapid succession a little like this: “Oh, here comes the smoke… it’s gray now, but it’s going to be black… ok, it’s still not black… it’s not turning black… is it white? White smoke??!! WE GOT WHITE SMOKE!! OH YEAH!! HABEMUS PAPAM, BABY!! 

Vatican News Service photo

Anticipation and Announcement

At this point, everyone was cheering, shouting, and basically stampeding towards the front of the square. The umbrella forest became a dense jungle canopy. In the chaos of the crowd, I somehow managed to end up in a small group of NAC seminarians, well in front of the obelisk and about 30 yards from the front barricades. The giant bells of St. Peter’s began to ring, and the commotion intensified–you could just feel the anticipation in the air. It continued to rain lightly, and I strained to snap a few pictures of the white smoke, the bells, and the crowd. My classmates and I were buzzing about the new pope, but we really had absolutely no new information. We started guessing what his new name would be… Paul VII? John XXIV? Pius XIII? Leo? Someone we’ve never heard of? At least nobody guessed Peter II.

Those 45 minutes went by in a flash, but the next 15 were an eternity. The rain slowed, then stopped. The umbrella jungle vanished. Then we began to see signs of movement. The lights on the loggia came on, and the people cheered. There was a rustle of the curtains, and the people cheered. Someone thought they saw a shadow, and the people cheered. It was like they were teasing us! Finally, the windows swung open, and the cardinal stepped out, announcing a message of great joy: habemus papam! He announced his birth name and his new name in Latin, then retreated back inside. The reaction from the crowd was not what I expected. Up to now, every little thing made the crowd erupt in cheers, but this time, all I heard was hushed murmuring all around. In dozens of different languages, everyone seemed to be collectively thinking, “what did he say? Bergoglio? who is that?” A single word passed my lips: “Francis.” Our Holy Father is Francis.

My friends quickly pulled out their smartphones and desperately tried to find some webpage, Wikipedia page, Facebook page, anything to let us know who he is. It was no use; the cell towers couldn’t handle the number of phones in the piazza. My classmate jokingly remarked, “It’s definitely a first-world problem that I can’t update my Facebook status right now.” Then we tried to recall whether there had been a pope Francis. I could have sworn that there was, but I must have been thinking of the handful of Franciscan popes we have had through the years. So, Francis the first… immediately I recalled the words St. Francis of Assisi heard from the Lord, “Francis, rebuild my Church, which has fallen into ruin.” A great sense of hope, joy, and zeal washed over me. This Pope’s leadership will shape my priestly ministry.

The Holy Father Emerges

As Pope Francis stepped out onto the balcony, the crowd, as expected, erupted. I couldn’t see the jumbotron over the crowd, so I just stared up at the balcony as he began to speak. “Cari fratelli e sorelle, buona sera!” Another eruption of cheers. His first request, “Before I give you my blessing, I would ask that you pray for me.” Then came the din of a million people in complete silence. “For fortitude… for faithfulness,” I prayed. He gave us his Apostolic Blessing and bid us good night and rest well. He must not have slept a wink last night.

Vatican News Service Photo

Back at the College

We returned to the College and immediately did what Pope Francis asked: we solemnly exposed the Blessed Sacrament for adoration and began to sing hymns and pray for him. After our prayers and a quick bite to eat came a scene that I will not soon forget. By now, the American media had arrived in the building, and the cardinals were on their way. The whole seminary community lined the halls and waited for the cardinals’ homecoming. The scene quickly turned into a pep-rally/victory party atmosphere, with raucous cheers and chants you would expect in a football stadium. Our two Jesuit faculty members, Fr. Herrera and Fr. Hurley, tried to hide in the back of the crowd, but they were quickly thrown into the center of the cheering seminarians to shouts of HE–RRE–RA! and FA–ther HUR–ley! clap-clap, clap-clap-clap. You know the one. I can only imagine what was going through the media’s minds as they heard the shouts echoing through the halls. They must have been perplexed by our celebration–“shouldn’t they be disappointed that an American didn’t win?” Quite the contrary. We have a pope. He is the vicar of Christ, who is the head of His body, the Church. He is the visible sign that the Church will endure forever and for all ages. 

Then the cardinals finally arrived–Dolan first. “DO-LAN! DO-LAN!” we cheered. You would have thought he was the one elected pope. You see, he is a former Rector of the North American College, so the exuberant welcome had a real feeling of homecoming for us all. Then one by one, the others came through… Rigali, Wuerl, DiNardo, George, Mahoney. They filed down the halls and towards the media, who were waiting to interview them in various rooms in the College. 

The celebration continued into the night, and everyone exchanged stories on what they had heard about our new Holy Father. A former Jesuit, a humble man, a life of radical poverty, an Argentine… In the end, we knew that God has provided us with a good shepherd. A new chapter now begins in this great adventure. Please pray for our new Pope, Francis. And if you ever get to visit Rome, you can join with the cheers of faithful from around the world, “FRAN–CES–CO! FRAN–CES–CO!”

Yours in Christ,

Joe Keating

Thoughts on Pope Benedict XVI and the next guy in the job

I woke up this morning to the startling news that Pope Benedict XVI was resigning at the end of the month, citing failing health and energy. The last time a pope resigned was in 1415 when Pope Gregory XII stepped down to end the Western Schism that had multiple claimants to the papacy.  Obviously, nobody alive has experienced a situation like this.
Pontiffs die—sometimes suddenly, sometimes after a long illness—and an appropriate mourning period is completed before a conclave is convened to elect a new pope.  The new pope is guided by the former pope’s staff and tradition, and learns the job as he goes. Very little changes, and when it does, it’s not rapid change. This is the way it’s been for 2,000 years.
For the first time in six centuries the next pope will have his predecessor alive and nearby. How will that man, known only to God right now, feel about that? No pope in more than half a millennium has had his predecessor around to watch how he’s doing.
Presidents and Prime Ministers usually have one or more predecessors around and often consult them on matters of state. There’s a period of time between the election and the inauguration, and a transition staff ensures a seamless transfer of power. This happens with local elected offices as well. It’s considered a courtesy for the former leader to help the new leader assume power.
Monarchs die, but they have had decades to groom their replacement, their heir, for the job. The rare abdicationusually results in a parent going into retirement while the heir takes the reigns.
If the President of the United States dies in office or resigns(and I’ve experienced both in my lifetime) there is still an orderly, if slightly frantic, transition of power.  Even with short notice and lots of emotion, the new president can step into the job because presumably he (or someday she) has been kept in the loop and groomed for the job. The U.S. Constitution (25th Amendment) is very clear about presidential succession.
Not so with the pope, who is, after all, a head of state as well as the spiritual leader of a billion Catholics worldwide. There is no “pope-in-waiting” or “vice pope,” no constitutional line of succession. While names of possible new popes are already being tossed around, nobody is groomed for the job, and nobody on Earth has ever had the last pope on speed dial.
By many accounts, Pope Benedict accepted the job reluctantly. A shy academic theologian more comfortable with his books and writing, he took to the job with energy despite being the oldest pope (78) at election in more than 300 years. While he never achieved the rock star status of Blessed John Paul II, he grew into the role as the years went on, and leaves a legacy of influence and change in the church during troubled times. He even promoted the use of social media by the clergy, and encouraged better communication from the Vatican.  
Yes, the shadow of the sex abuse scandal is a long one, and it will be a generation before those involved are no longer part of the clergy. But Benedict’s influence, leadership, and scholarship cast a longer shadow, and the next pope is faced with the extraordinary knowledge that the only guy alive who knows what the job is like is only a text or a tweet away. 

If I were Manti Te’o’s publicist….

The Manti Te’o girlfriend story has more legs than a centipede. Every time I turn on a sportscast, check my Twitter feed or a sports page, the story has changed. It’s now more twisted than that pile of chargers, Ethernet cables and other electronic peripherals in the bottom drawer in the den, and is evolving faster than a mutated virus in a science fiction film. Based on the many news reports and blogs I’ve read about the fake girlfriend hoax, he’s definitely got a PR problem—one that could affect his career in the NFLbefore it even starts.

I almost missed this story. I was wrapped up in the first week of classes and consumed by the Lance Armstrong confessional, which will probably be a future blog post.  All of a sudden this guy from Notre Dame was consuming the sports world with the most bizarre story since the balloon boy.
Here are the undisputed facts: Manti Te’o is a big deal at Notre Dame. It was reported that his grandmother and girlfriend died within hours of each other, eliciting much sympathy in the press last fall. The South Bend Tribune, Sports Illustrated, CBS Sports and other media gushed about his bravery in the face of adversity.  He was on ESPN Gameday talking about the tragedy. He was a finalist for the Heisman Trophy, and we all know an inspirational story can influence voters for any award. He came in second, and Notre Dame went on to play Alabama in the National Championship game.
Fast forward to Wednesday, January 16, and Deadspinbreaks a shocking story: The girlfriend didn’t exist. This is where it starts to get weird.
I can’t possibly keep track of the twists and turns in this story. Apparently Notre Dame knew about it in December, but for reasons still unclear kept it from the public. Te’o’s denials of knowledge and involvement started to morph, and various family members had conflicting quotes. Did he meet her? Or was she just an online relationship? Not sure when we’ll know the truth, but the speculation in the press and online range from accusations of Te’o cooking up the scheme to gain Heisman votes to his creating the fake girlfriend to hide the fact that he’s gay. Since the admitted perpetrator of the hoax is apparently an acquaintanceof Te’o, it’s not preposterous to think the hoax was planned for reasons other than “catfishing” a prominent athlete.
Te’o did an off-camera interview with ESPNin which he admitted he embellished the story, and at this writing it has been announced that Te’o and family members will sit down with Katie Couric on Thursday, January 24th.
Where am I going with this? I’m not sure—because the minute I post it, the story will take another turn and this blog post will be out of date.  But right now, Lance Armstrong has more credibility. Oh yes, there are writers who are saying Armstrong and Te’o are very similar, but I disagree.
Why would I say Armstrong, who finally admitted to doping throughout his cycling career, is more credible than Te’o? Because Armstrong has been completely consistentfrom Day 1. His story never varied. For more than a decade he has vehemently denied he used any performance enhancing substances. Whether he is a sociopath who believes his own lies, or was so arrogant he felt he would never get caught, at least the guy was consistent. Most liars get caught up sooner or later by conflicting stories or some slip-up that forces them to come clean. Not Armstrong. His ability to come up with a story and stick to it is admirable. Politicians could take a page from his playbook. But I digress….
If I were Manti Te’o’s publicist—and I’m not, his family has hired Matt Hiltzik as their publicist. He represents, among other folks, Alec Baldwin, Don Imus, Glenn Beck, Justin Bieber and…Katie Couric.
Manti Te’o could learn a thing or two from the disgraced Armstrong’s confession to Oprah. This blog on CNN points out a number of things that Armstrong did wrong.  As the article says, getting caught is just the beginning, and blaming yourself is not sufficient. Manti Te’o and those who follow him would do well to learn from the mistakes of arguably the most famous athlete of the past decade.
So if I were Manti Te’o’s publicist? I’d tell him “Come clean—NOW.” If you’re gay, say it. It’s darn time a major sport had an openly gay player, much less a star. I know being Mormon, and going to a Catholic school makes that admission more difficult, but go for it. Somebody will “out” you eventually. That’s news that should come from you, and nobody else.  If you were in on the hoax, say so, but tell us why. If you didn’t know about it, admit you’re gullible, but be believable when you do it because nobody believes anybody with a degree from a school like Notre Dame could be so naïve.
This will be a tough one for Manti Te’o and Notre Dame to overcome. The questions will linger for a long time. Unlike the Lance Armstrong fiasco, this scandal doesn’t threaten to demolish (or reform) an entire global sport. It does threaten to undermine the credibility of one fine university’s athletic department PR team as well as the entire sports journalism community, which fell for a hoax hook, line and sinker, and never once did the kind of fact checking taught in Journalism 101.

Santa’s Yarmulke

As a little kid growing up in South Bend, Indiana, Christmas was a big deal. It started Thanksgiving weekend when Daddy made fruitcakes which he then aged with periodic splashes of bourbon. Mom spent days stressing out over baking and decorating cookies, shopping, wrapping presents and sending many cards to friends all over the place. Big brother Mike and I had Christmas Club accounts at our local bank so we could save up to buy presents. Decorations had to be perfect, even though we lived in a modest post-war house in a blue collar neighborhood on O’Brien Street. There was usually one adult party, but the highlight of it all was Christmas Eve and Midnight Mass, and a visit from Santa.

Somehow Mom managed to get us to take a nap the afternoon of Christmas Eve. Since Mike is 9 1/2 years older than me, it was probably easier to get him to sleep. Sometime around 8 p.m. we were awake and dressed up and had a light Christmas Eve dinner that always included shrimp cocktail (a big deal in 1960’s Indiana). I don’t remember what else we had, but the shrimp cocktail sticks out in my mind, and it’s not a Christmas Eve without it today. Mom made a big fuss with the good china and crystal and lit candles on the table. We’d watch TV, put out a plate of cookies and a glass of milk, then leave for Midnight Mass in time to be in our seats by 10:45. Mom always referred to those people who only show up for Mass at Christmas and Easter as the “Poinsettia and Lilly Brigade” and you had to get there early or they’d beat you to a seat.

Even when I was little I always stayed awake through Midnight Mass. I loved the pageantry, even though I had no clue what was going on because in those days it was all in Latin. The candles, the poinsettias, the lit trees, and the nativity scene were always so vivid at night. When they put the baby Jesus in the manger at Midnight it was really Christmas. The incense and music made the whole evening so special I forgot about Santa. It was long, but it was lovely and I was entranced with it all.

Some time after 1 a.m., Mass was over and we’d head home. I remember clear, cold, starry nights that were always silent and magical. Sometimes we’d drive home through the rich neighborhoods to ooh and aah at the spectacular lighting displays on the houses.

Arriving home, Dad would unlock the front door, look inside and go “Wow! Look who’s been here!” We’d rush into the house and there, under and around the Christmas tree, would be a fabulous array of wrapped presents and toys, displayed beautifully under the twinkling lights on the tree. We would stand there and admire the presents with anticipation, waiting for Mom or Dad to say it was OK to open them.

Mom would start calling friends to tell them we were home. These were folks who had been pre-invited to our “midnight breakfast” and they were up waiting for confirmation that we were home. Daddy would start making omelets and hash browns as people came to the door. Drinks were mixed and champagne flowed.

The first folks to arrive were always the Zubkoffs, the Jewish family next door. Harold and Birgit (who had a concentration camp tattoo on her arm) were always very interested in the packages under the tree, quizzing  us about what we thought might be within. Interestingly, there was always a package under our tree for their daughter Karen (a year older than me) and son Ian (a couple years younger than me). Birgit explained that because they didn’t really celebrate Christmas, Santa didn’t come to their house, but always left something for their kids at our house because he knew we were friends.

Once all the adults arrived and food was served we kids were allowed to open one present each. Sometimes the adult guests brought us presents, which we could open, but most of the presents from Santa had to wait until morning. Sometime around 3 a.m. the last guests said their goodbyes, and we were left in the quiet house. Depending on Mom’s mood we might open the rest of our presents then, or we might go to bed knowing we could open the rest of the presents when we awoke. Either way, the years when Santa visited during Midnight Mass were the most special of all.

It wasn’t until I was in my late teens that I figured out Harold and Birgit probably had a key to the house, to let Santa in, since we didn’t have a chimney. That’s why they were always the first to arrive for the midnight breakfast, and why they always knew which present we should open first. Who knew Santa wore a yarmulke?

I look back on these Christmas celebrations with warmth and joy. Our small family had a large extended family that included friends near and far. That my parents figured out a way to include our Jewish neighbors is a testament to how we should all join together in love, understanding and peace.

Merry Christmas!

How I would have helped the NRA manage today’s press conference

I never expected the NRA to suggest support for any gun control legislation, but I still watched the “press conference” today with anticipation.  After nearly a week of silence, the largest, most influential gun rights organization in the world was going to speak out in response to the Sandy Hook school shooting.
Looking at this from a strictly public relations point of view, the NRA’s event is a good, quick case study of how not to do public relations.
Going into this, the NRA leadership knows the country is divided on this topic, and very emotional about it.  The NRA’s initial response after the Newtown massacre was to pull down their Facebook page and go silent on Twitter.  On Wednesday of this week they made a brief statement and announced a press conference on Friday, December 21, which prompted more than a few jokes about their timing and the Mayan Apocalypse.  (Hey, if the world ends, they won’t have to do it…)
There are plenty of summaries, transcripts and videos around, if you didn’t watch it. I like the C-Span version because they show the whole thing unedited.
In summary—After a brief introduction by NRA president DavidKeene (who stated they would not take questions), EVP and CEO Wayne LaPierre was introduced. What transpired was fascinating to watch. 
LaPierre’s body language and tone of voice were initially very slow and measured—too slow, in my opinion. I don’t know if he was trying to appear sad or apolitical, but he came across as disingenuous and insincere.  At times he appeared to ramble. Speaking in a tone suitable for first graders, LaPierre reminded me of Mr. Rogers reading to pre-schoolers during story time.
The gist of LaPierre’s speech was to blame gun-free zones around schools, the media, the entertainment industry, online and video games, and a culture of violence in our society. He specifically cited something called Kindergarten Killer and criticized the media for not covering it. I’ll wager this little-played, little-known online flash game has had more hits today than in its entire 10-year existence, thanks to the free publicity from the NRA.
I could hear Fred Rogers in my head when LaPierre said “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”
LaPierre handled interruptions by two protesters well. He simply stopped speaking and waited while they were escorted from the room. 
The Mr. Rogers tone and pacing waned when LaPierre started to discuss the proposal–armed police officers and trained volunteers patrolling every school in the country. He announced the National School Shield initiative and introduced former congressman Asa Hutchinson as the director of the new program. Hutchinson’s remarks were brief, straightforward and clear. He demonstrated more credibility as a leader than LaPierre, and I felt more confident about the program when he spoke about it. Body language and delivery DO make a difference.
The event wrapped with Keene returning to the podium as reporters started to shout questions. This is where the most regrettable quote of the day came–Keen said “…this is the beginning of a serious conversation. We won’t be taking questions today.”  Probably an ad-lib, but the quote made Twitter come alive.
If the NRA had hired me to be their PR counsel, here’s what I would have suggested:
  • Don’t call it a press conference if you’re not planning on taking questions. Media come to news conferences expecting to ask questions rather than be lectured to.
  • Refrain from insulting your audience. LaPierre made numerous jabs at the media. They know he doesn’t like them, and most return the sentiment. But antagonizing the messenger lessens the chance they’ll really hear your message, and dilutes balanced coverage. Show the respect you expect to recive.
  • Provide facts and figures. LaPierre blamed Hollywood and the video game industry for gun violence, but offered no studies to support his claim. Research supporting both sides of this argument exists. If you want to take the emotion out of an emotional issues, try adding some facts.
  • Include a full page about your new National School Shield. initiative, with a direct link from the home page. “More info coming soon” is not a suitable response. If you’ve had time to develop the program enough to hire new leadership, you’ve got time to put together a Web page with more info than a bio and a speech transcript. And don’t make us look for it on your site. 
  • Offer support to groups lobbying on behalf of better mental health care. Yes, that’s radical, and while there still isn’t conclusive evidence the Newtown shooter was mentally ill, most spree shooters are. If you’re not going to do anything to keep “monsters” (LaPierre’s word) from accessing firearms, at least work with those who are trying to help the mentally ill. Opening a dialogue with groups like the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) could help the NRA’s credibility with people on both sides of the gun issue as well as reduce the need for an armed police state.
PR friends, what do you think? How would you have helped the NRA improve their event today?