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Dear American Democracy:

This week you will be exposed to vile falsehoods. Politicians who have taken oaths to uphold the constitution, will lie and lie and try to harm you only for their own gain. Hoping to pick up future votes of a population who has been lied to and may not see what is at stake. Be strong. You are wise and old now. Do not succumb to their efforts to weaken you. You are the example the world has looked to … you will prevail.

John Adams may be repenting in heaven for how we have lost our way. He foresaw the possibility that our beloved democracy could be squandered when he wrote: “Posterity! You will never know, how much it cost the present Generation, to preserve your Freedom! I hope you will make a good Use of it. If you do not, I shall repent in Heaven, that I ever took half the Pains to preserve it.”

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No Matter What the Rippling Impact, Communications Ethics Come First

It is time to republish this post written in 2016.

Communications professionals know that ethics and integrity are critically important components to our work. But applying ethical guidelines can be very difficult. At times, as we grapple with specific circumstances, we must make difficult decisions about how to handle ethical challenges.

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As a lawyer and communications professional words are one the tools we use to persuade, convince and resolve. We rely on court opinions and written statutory law enacted by legislative process. We rely on words from prior court cases and prior generations that might use words we find offensive or off-putting now. We reference our time and shape our vision of the world with words and phrases. We learn from the words of the past about how things were then and how they are different now. In my tradition, some of those words were written thousands of years ago.

I have hesitated to publish or submit to the MLK archives the speech my father gave after he returned from the Selma march in 1964 because his words, like those of Dr. King at the time, are different than words we use now. He was asked to give a speech to the wider community about his experiences. But I have concluded that his speech belongs in the MLK archives so that his perspective is preserved for future generations. Without context, we cannot fully understand the effort and its progression, even if the words used then are dissonant now.

I thought this week about what Dr. King must have thought as my parents brought me and older brother into that small room in San Francisco to meet Dr. King and Ralph Abernathy. I can imagine the respect he had for my father to bring his children along in this historic fight, and take us to the Cow Palace (photo attached) later that night to sit with thousands of civil rights activists and supporters as the battle lines for equality were being drawn. As I sat in the audience with my family while my dad was on the podium with Dr. King, I didn’t notice at all that we were a super minority that night.

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We have had to adjust to many unprecedented changes these past two years. Changes to the way we see our family and friends, the way our children learn, the way our teachers teach, the way we worship or don’t worship in our sacred places, the clothes we wear and the way we relate to the world. There are too many changes to mention. Some of them have been easier than others.

Along with these adjustments we have gained and lost. We might feel closer to those we love, but more distant to those we cannot see because they are far away or vulnerable to getting ill during the pandemic. Keeping our heads above water and not feeling like we are about to drown in constant uncertainty, is not easy at any age. As we move to the end of 2021 and try to look forward positively to 2022, there are a few things to keep in mind.

You are lucky if you and your close family and friends have been able to avoid illness. The devastation of Covid and its impact on many around the world is something we cannot know fully unless we have experienced it. Some are suffering from long Covid symptoms that can only be appreciated if we take the time to think about difficulty moving, getting energy, losing basic abilities like easy breathing, taste, smell. Thousands of people have lost their lives in our country alone. These people were loved by some or many … we must avoid thinking of these lost souls as numbers, they were amazing humans. Some were well known others not, except to their families. We mourn all these losses.

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These days, branding is pervasive in just about all aspects of our lives. We see the way celebrities take advantage of self-branding. They get a lot of help from companies that want to leverage their products with celebrity branding equities. We all know that an endorsement from someone like Oprah when she was on air just about constantly, meant instant success. One word from Oprah or better yet if your product ended up or ends up on her favorites list you can gain an audience and have your product or book take off like never before.

Then there were Tigers of Money from Japan (2001) and the Dragons’ Den from Britain (2005) which were the television programs on which Shark Tank is based. Once your product or service makes it on to Shark Tank, depending on many factors, you can elevate your brand even without and investment.

So how do service professionals make it through all the branding noise that is constant and loud around us? And how do we as professionals, remain within our ethical and other guidelines for marketing when social media and the web have taken a strangle hold on our firm or personal reputations?

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The way a company manages crisis can be as important as the way it manages success. Over the years, communications professionals have learned from the wisdom of hindsight, that crisis management is the key to a company’s future health. Some very well known brand crises provide guidance.

The 1982 Tylenol murders and Johnson & Johnson’s response to them, exemplify best practices response to crisis management. Several people died after taking Extra Strength Tylenol that had been tampered with and was laced with cyanide. Although Johnson & Johnson had no responsibility for the deaths of these individuals, the way they managed this tragedy made it possible for the Tylenol brand to survive. We think nothing of taking this drug now and at this point there are many people who don’t even know that this happened to the iconic brand. The reason for the brand’s survival is the way Johnson & Johnson took on the crisis by immediately recalling the product and reintroducing it only after it developed safety measures to ensure that tampering with the drug would be very difficult.

In 1996, Odwalla Inc., known for its healthy juice products, had a serious crisis. Some of its products containing unpasteurized apple juice were found to be contaminated with E.coli. A number of people became ill after drinking the juice. Odwalla reacted to the crisis by recalling many of its juice products, even those that were not known to have E.coli contamination. The company demonstrated its commitment to the public’s health and welfare in the way it handled this crisis. The emphasis on consumer well being tracked precisely with the healthy nature of the juices the company sold. This alignment of values and action was impressive and ensured that consumers would continue to have access to these juices for years to come.

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A while back, I read a great piece by Christine Riordin in the HBR on what she says we inaccurately call work-life balance. Apparently, researchers have found that when we are on the job believing that we don’t have enough family or personal time, that itself drains and distracts us.

Some folks, including tech executives with really demanding jobs seem to have it all and do it all. As a young practicing lawyer, who happened also to be a female in a male dominated profession, I gave up trying to have it all because I could not come up with the right formula.

After many years of earnest effort, I ended up going on the ambivalence-creating “mommy track.” I do not intend to make this about male v. female in my profession, but realistically there is a big difference on the demands we experience and the support we need and receive. I tell the young women I mentor in the law that they need to ask for support and guidance when they are feeling overwhelmed or drained. I have suggested they join law firms that have an open commitment to work life issues.

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This week there has been lots of press on the Apple Samsung case, particularly in the Bay Area. The discussion is not limited to SV insiders, because the case deals with issues many of us have confronted in our professional lives: how to deal with a company or person taking ideas without paying for them or attributing them to their rightful owner. As the jury deliberates, they will struggle with complex questions simply put: who took what from whom, or at all.

As lawyers, we are supposed to be really good at making sure we follow the law — we do not take another entity’s intellectual property or copyrights. Having worked for many years and still consulting for a major information technology and publishing entity that owns a great deal of intellectual property, I understand the lines we must draw to protect our businesses, technologies and protected ideas, including patents and marked services or products. Working for two decades in the entertainment world, I have also vigilantly protected the IP rights of major production companies that allow our products to be featured on their productions.

I have experienced this sense of loss when something we create is picked up without attribution or payment or permission. A number of years ago, work I was involved with was “infringed” by one very large lawyer-related organization. This entity used both a name and trade dress that was very similar to something my team and I had created. When I showed this to my ceo he said “take it as a compliment, its flattering.” I wanted to send a cease and desist. He said no. Later the issue came full circle when I tried to hire a freelance writer who also wrote for the “infringing” entity. The writer apologetically declined because as he said “the management [of the other organization] doesn’t want me to write for you because it might be confusing since our publication names are so similar.” Exactly. But so wrong.

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If you are a professional, you have had tough ethical decisions to make in your career. This is an inescapable aspect of being in the business world.

If this has not happened to you, you are new to your profession. And if it has, you are doing well because you are thinking through tough issues and you know them when you see them.

There are times in the life of every communications professional that we must make very tough recommendations to our internal clients. There are times in the life of every professional that we must make decisions that could have a downside to reputation and bottom line. There are times in the life of every executive that someone in your organization will bring you bad news and you will not want to hear it.

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Recent interesting reading in the Harvard Business Review supports the sound advice — choose your words carefully — if you can. Say what?

In computer-assisted research over the past couple of decades, Professor James Pennebacker, author of the The Secret Life of Pronouns, What Our Words Say About Us, has determined that words like pronouns say big things about a person’s stability and honesty, among other things. In fact, his research reveals that these words actually say more than “content words.” That means words we usually throw around to connect what we are trying to express — such as pronouns and prepositions really say a great deal about us.

Professor Pennebacker explains his research quite powerfully. He says “function” words are more socially bound than other content words. And he says that we really cannot control the way we use these words, they just happen and are difficult to track without the use of computer analytics.

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