Disinformation versus Reality

(Note to readers: This is a copy of a “Letter to the Editor” of the Taipei Times that I wrote and was recently published. We hear so doggone much about “fake news” and “disinformation” and all that. What do YOU think?)

Publication1Much has been discussed in the media in Taiwan and the US regarding the seeming proliferation of “facts” that on the surface sound and seem true, but, upon further investigation, are just the opposite.

One term used to describe this situation is “disinformation,” a relatively innocuous term. A more extremist approach has been taken, on the other hand, by US President Donald Trump, who has popularized the description of (in his eyes) unfavorable media coverage as “fake news,” and he and his communication team have worked overtime to drive home the derogatory description.

While this attention-grabbing activity takes place virtually year-round, one particular time that the phenomenon regularly — and predictably — emerges is during political campaign seasons on every level from local to national government.

Certain political aspirants apparently feel that “anything goes” when it comes to what they either infer or claim outright about their opponents. Unfortunately an often unsuspecting, unquestioning consumer public accepts these individuals’ pronouncements as truth.

Looking back, as ready access to information expanded, citizens were presented with more avenues through which to ensure that they had the most current and, presumably, most accurate data on which to base their decisions. They felt reasonably comfortable with this situation because they knew that, at that time, media outlets had as part of their organizational structure editorial “gatekeepers” whose responsibilities included ensuring that the information being communicated was verifiably truthful, impartial and beneficial.

Entry into the 21st century has brought us, as news consumers, a plethora of avenues — most particularly social media platforms, but also increasingly vocal and partisan traditional news outlets — for accessing information, many of which are “unencumbered” by gatekeepers.

This is not to say that we are being subjected at all times to intentional untruths. Rather, we are faced today with the additional responsibility of conducting our own fact-checking to ensure that what we read, see or hear is accurate.

For older generations, this is an unfamiliar responsibility. As I so often have told my students for nearly two decades, I vividly remember when my grandmother would make a remark about some public occurrence. When I asked how she knew that, her response invariably would be: “I heard it on the radio.” From her perspective, “the radio doesn’t lie. Case closed; I have heard the truth.”

People who read, listen and watch today would be well advised to take the “facts” as they are presented via their preferred medium with a large pinch of salt.

I am not suggesting that all that one receives from the media is incorrect or intentionally misleading. Quite the opposite. As a former public-relations professional, I saw first-hand the lengths to which my colleagues in the media would go to ensure that the information they pass on to their audience is as accurate as possible.

Rather, I would suggest that one should be an active participant in the communication process. Take the additional step of cross-checking information that somehow sounds “iffy,” that does not quite match what one has previously been told.

News consumption today is comparable to a visit to the doctor — you should always get a second opinion before taking drastic action.

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Listening…The “Secret Sauce” in Mentoring

Publication1I reconnected with a former student recently when Facebook alerted me that it was her birthday. As is my custom, I sent her a short “Happy Birthday” note. A couple of back-and-forth notes, and it dawned on me that I have now known this amazing young woman for 13 years!

We don’t communicate regularly…mostly birthday wishes and stuff like that. But I was reminded this morning (love those memories that float up from the mists!) of the incident that cemented our friendship.

I was teaching part-time at a college south of Boston and was sitting in my “office” when I overheard a conversation she was having with her faculty advisor. I wasn’t eavesdropping, in case you’re wondering. The set-up of the part-timers’ office space was such that we could hear…whether we wanted to or not…virtually everything going on around us.

Anyway, my take on her meeting was that it didn’t go well at all. From what I heard the professor say to her, it was pretty obvious that he basically didn’t give a damn.

When she left his office, practically in tears, I caught her eye and invited her to come in…sit…and talk. While I was new at this teaching thing, I had enough professional experience that I was able to help her get a handle on the problem she had and to give her some suggestions on what she could do to resolve it. But I was able to do this for one simple reason…I listened.

And that’s one of the key factors in mentoring…it’s a give-and-take relationship, with both parties playing an active role in the process. And…yes…listening is an active thing. You’re absorbing everything that the other party is saying, processing it through the filters of your own knowledge and experience, and responding with suggestions on how he or she can best approach the challenge.

Going back to my young friend/former student…I can’t begin to describe how impressed I am with where she is today. She has established herself solidly in the career field that she identified as her future and is doing amazing things!

I hasten to add that I honestly had nothing to do with this success. I actually left the college where I met her to take a full-time position elsewhere. But, again, thanks to the “magic” of Facebook and LinkedIn, I have been able to stay relatively up to speed on what she has been and is doing.

Listening is something that is so easily overlooked or given short shrift. I can’t tell you how many times myself I’ve gone to a colleague hoping to get some guidance only to wind up being subjected to either a lecture or a diatribe that does nothing more than waste my time.

It obviously helps if you have actual experience that relates to the situation that your mentee is dealing with. But it’s not a perfect world. Sometimes you just have to listen to the words behind what the other person is saying and then offer suggestions on how he or she might best approach it.

Listening is just that…listening…actively and compassionately. It’s the “secret sauce” in mentoring.

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I Absolutely LOVE Learning!

Publication1This “revelation” comes as no surprise to any of you who have subjected yourselves to my musings over the years. Learning, to me, is a passion.

Whether it be, as a toddler, sticking a metal nail file into a wall socket to see what would happen (won’t do THAT again!) or, as a young teen, rewiring a crystal diode radio on the theory that, if I could pick up a radio station 15 miles away with the crystal diode, imagine what I might be able to get with a 120-volt connection, I have always had a curious, wanna learn, streak! (Note: Didn’t know until that last experiment that transistors can explode!) Bottom line…learned a LOT from both experiences!

Education in its many forms accomplishes so many things…
* It prepares you to participate in the many aspects of adult and professional life that make you…and our nation…successful.
* It helps you, when you encounter new challenges, to evaluate the situation and make a reasoned and logical decision.
* It introduces you to sooo many new things…art, history, life in general.

I recently attended my first PRSA Sunshine District Conference, held here in my new “hometown” of Tampa, FL…day-and-a-half of nonstop keynote speakers and breakout sessions. I wrote a brief recap for the PRSA Tampa Bay Chapter blog in which I basically said I didn’t learn a single NEW thing…but that’s a GOOD thing!

What I DID do was get solid and professional validation that what I thought I knew and what I share these days with my Communication students at The University of Tampa…and, before, with my Communication students at Curry College…is accurate and current. Whew!!

I’m always amused…and puzzled…when I hear one of my students mutter something to the effect of “I’ll be so glad when I graduate and won’t have to study anymore.” To which I often respond, “Your studying is only beginning…wait until you start your new job and find out just what all you have to learn!”

Cue the mournful look and sigh…

One other bullet on the “accomplishes” list…
* Education…learning…keeps you young.

I have harbored this probably irrational fear seemingly forever that my brain will “rot” if I don’t keep it gainfully occupied. Stupid? Maybe. But I have NO intention of testing the premise!

So there you have it. As English poet Alexander Pope said so wisely: “A little learning is a dangerous thing; Drink deep or taste not the Pierian spring.”

I absolutely LOVE learning!

Posted in Action, careers, Communication, Curry College, Education, feedback, Inspiration, professional organizations, PRSA Sunshine District, PRSA Tampa Bay, public relations, The University of Tampa, Thinking, University of Tampa | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Just Another Day…

Publication1Hate to be a downer here, but I do not like summers. Or at least I haven’t liked them since I transitioned from PR professional to PR professor to “retired…” It hasn’t been easy…not that I’ve actually spent much time, really, in the process…to transition from a go-go-go work week/month to three months of basically sitting around twiddling my thumbs.

Now before any of my friends in academia start pounding on my head about “doing research, preparing for the coming semester, etc., etc.,” yeah, I know you do that stuff. And good for you. It’s just that I’m not wired for that kind of activity. I stay up-to-date on all things PR anyway through my professional associations and activities. And syllabi are syllabi.

I miss the good ol’ days when I was on call 24/7…wore a pager so that folks could get in touch with me wherever I was…and loved the adrenaline rush when it went off. It might be someone from the media looking for information. Or someone from my organization with a PR-related problem. Whatever the case, it very likely meant that my expertise as a public relations professional was needed.

Having now said all this, I now have to circle back and say this particular summer has been a humdinger:

  • Spent a blissful month in Taipei eating amazing food, sightseeing, hanging out…and, no, I’m not going to stop reminding you of this!
  • Had (as of today) nine “Letters to the Editor” published in the Tampa Bay Times and the Taipei Times since spring semester ended, mostly addressing either ethical or transportation issues that caught my eye in the news.
  • Completed and submitted a review of a pretty cool new public relations ethics textbook for “Communication Booknotes Quarterly.” (Publication pending.) 
  • Had a blog post published by PRSA on mentoring. Love being able to share my thoughts with my professional colleagues.
  • Started coordinating activities for PRSA’s “Ethics Month” in September…MUCH more to come on this one!!

So, yeah, contrary to my whining above, I’ve been kinda busy it seems given it’s just the end of July!

What’s the point, you ask? Pretty simple. Sometimes you just have to take a really deep breath and pause to reflect on the who/what/why of your current situation. It’s pretty easy to start beating yourself up because things at the moment just don’t seem to be rolling along the way you’d hoped. But take a minute. Do what I just did. Write down all the stuff you’ve accomplished in the past XX months (or weeks or whatever). Then take a good long look at the list.

My guess is that, when you’ve done this, you’re going to say “Holy Cow! I’ve done some pretty cool stuff!”

Yeah. Summers may not be one of my favorite times of the year. But that’s okay. They’re just one small part of a 12-month flurry of activity. Just keep on keepin’ on, and you’ll realize it’s not “just another day.”

Posted in Action, careers, Ethics, feedback, Inspiration, networking, pleasure, professional organizations, PRSA, public relations, Public Relations Society of America, Thinking | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

“And You Wonder Why ‘No One Called Me Back’”

Publication1_editedI know. I harp on this all the time. My Curry College students in particular, as well as now my University of Tampa students, know the drill all too well. A TON of red ink circling various words and phrases in the written work that they turned in rapidly becomes a part of the agony.

I get it. This old-fashioned written stuff is annoying…everyone is doing everything online these days. I actually had a store clerk remark in amazement the other day, “You still write checks!”

Behold, earthlings…dinosaurs DO still roam! And many of us are still participating in the hiring process for companies or clients…reviewing resumes and cover letters in the hopes of finding a candidate who actually pays attention to what he or she is putting on paper.

“Close enough” doesn’t count. Not to get morbid about it, but we have witnessed in the news more times than we should accounts of an airplane suddenly malfunctioning and crashing, resulting in an entire product line being sidelined for “inspection.” Someone, somewhere, skipped a step in the process.

Now, I’m not suggesting that misspelled words and incorrect grammar rank at the same level as this example. But I am suggesting that the way in which you present yourself or your organization in writing can determine whether or not you get that job interview.

What brought this to mind was a quick glance I gave at the LinkedIn profile of a fairly experienced communications “pro” recently. I was intrigued to see that his last professional position was as “Communications MANGER.”

Fascinating! The last time I checked Webster’s Dictionary, a “manger” is “an open box in which food for farm animals is placed.” While I know that, as communicators, we “feed” information to the media and other key publics, in all my years AS a communicator, I’ve never been required to hold a bale of hay.

The bottom line is that, in my eyes as your potential employer or recommender for employment, if you aren’t willing to take a few extra minutes to double-check your work in your application FOR a job, what can I expect from you once you’re hired?!?

And please don’t try the excuse that a student years ago fired back at me when I asked her what she thought would happen if she turned in a work assignment to her supervisor with all the mistakes that were in her PR writing assignment…and I quote: “Someone else would have corrected the mistakes for me.” Wow!!

As the old saying goes, “You only get one chance to make a first impression.” And you’re wondering why they never called you back?!?

Posted in careers, Communication, Curry College, feedback, internships, job hunting, job search, public relations, University of Tampa | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

The Importance of Being ‘There’

Publication1 (2)I provided a comment for PRSA College of Fellows’ “Pearls of Wisdom” recently, reflecting on the impact that my supervisor during my US Army Training and Doctrine Command Public Affairs Intern beginnings had on my experience learning a new (for me) profession.

Clinton Parks was amazing. He cared deeply about every one of the 26 interns he was supervising, and I, like all of them, benefited.

From the beginning, he made sure that I got a few extra training opportunities because of my previous Air Force experience. I remember so clearly Clint saying to me, “You have more experience than any of the other interns, so I’m going to give you some different opportunities to learn more about public affairs.”

In the course of my 18-month internship, I worked in everything imaginable…

  1. wrote the script for and produced a community-service radio program,
  2. spent three months as a reporter for our base newspaper,
  3. spent three months at the local city newspaper office to see how “real” journalists operated,
  4. spent three months in the public affairs office admin office learning the ins-and-outs of administrative operations,
  5. spent three months in charge of the public affairs activities for the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) camp at Ft. Lewis, Washington,
  6. and, as a finale, was given a permanent assignment as Public Affairs Officer for the US Army Intelligence School at Ft. Devens, Massachusetts.

It was all pretty awesome, and I learned a TON in the process. But being put in charge of the PR activities for a 3,000-person (students, staff, faculty) school formally accredited by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges was a smidge daunting…especially since my predecessor had done a grand total of NOTHING other than alienate virtually everyone in the school and on the base. (Managed to get himself fired, too, no small feat for a government employee!)

Oh, yeah…and, on my very first day, when I formally met the commander of the school (the school “president”), I was greeted with “Why the HELL are you HERE??”

The enormity of it all hit me like a ton of bricks a few weeks into my assignment. Then one morning I was sitting at my desk wondering what I had gotten myself into when my phone rang. I answered, and a quiet voice on the other end said, “Kirk, it’s Clinton Parks. I just wanted to call and see how you were doing.”

How did Clint know that that was EXACTLY what I needed…a reassuring phone call from someone who I truly respected?? I unloaded on him right off the bat, asking if he thought this was going to work out. Clint quietly and calmly reassured me that I was already doing more than expected and that everything was going to be fine. We ended our chat, and I went back to my planning feeling much better.

The pattern continued. They weren’t regularly-scheduled calls. Clint just called once in a while “just to check in and see how things were going.”

This is something that I try to do to this day with students and anyone else who I have met who is trying to get his or her start in the professional world. A lot of the contacts are through Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn; some are via email and phone calls. I’m not a “stalker,” though, so I generally wait for the other person to make the first move.

But, occasionally, I happen to see a comment that says, to me, “I really would like to talk to someone about my problem.” I post a short comment that tells the person I’m here if he or she wants to talk or offers a quick observation on his or her situation based on my own experience.

The point is, like Clinton Parks, I care, and I want anyone who I have met to know that he or she is not in this alone. It’s the simple importance of “being there.”

Posted in Action, careers, feedback, Inspiration, internships, Leadership, mentoring, networking, overload, Planning, PR, public relations, Thinking, Time management | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Hello Darkness!

Publication1“Hello darkness, my old friend
I’ve come to talk with you again…”

These are the opening lyrics of one of my favorite songs by Simon and Garfunkel back in the mid-60s: “The Sound of Silence.”

Somehow this song has become my security blanket over the years…whenever I feel like I just can’t deal with [whatever], I play it over and over in my head.

It’s not “fun” hitting those periods where I truly do ask myself what’s the point in going on. Not that I’m thinking about doing something stupid, mind you…I just feel like no matter what I do, it’s just not worth it. I want to crawl into a deep, dark cave and just hide.

But there’s another set of words that I do my best to remember…actually just said them in my last post: “Count your blessings.”

Whenever the “darkness” sets in, I quite literally tell myself to stop focusing on those “bad” things and to, instead, think about all the good things that have happened over the years. And there have been a lot of those.

Some of them didn’t start out seeming like they were going to be good things…like graduating from college and, exactly a year later, getting on an airplane heading for Vietnam and what, according to everything that I was seeing on the news, was a terrible war in which a LOT of people on both sides were getting hurt or killed.

But I wound up doing something that I really enjoyed…teaching “English as a Second Language” to the Vietnamese military. Interestingly enough, as many of you know, teaching has been my professional focus for the past nearly-20 years, after having worked in various aspects of public relations for the previous 30-ish.

More important, though…as I also mentioned in my last post…thanks to a confluence of totally unpredictable circumstances and totally uneducated choices on my part upon arriving in Saigon, I met a young lady who has now been my wife of nearly 47 years.

The point to this rambling is that something that started out as a “What the hell did I do to deserve this?” situation evolved into a “Wow, I’m really glad I decided to do that!” bonus.

This is what I keep reminding myself of day-in-and-day-out. There can be good in just about everything that comes your way. You just have to trust that it will happen. And you have to be proactive in reminding yourself that it will, in spite of all the not-so-good things that might come your way.

“Hello darkness, my old friend…”

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