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Archive for September, 2007

Since I teach two sections of public relations writing, I am always thinking about the use of the language. Some usage makes me crazy, especially when used by the media.

Like the word “brandish”. The word means to “wave threateningly, as in a weapon.” News people frequently say things like, “An assailant brandished a weapon in the Quickie Mart today.” But we never hear anyone use the word in day-to-day discourse.

“I saw something awesome today! Lance entered the coffee shop and brandished a Starbucks card threatening to buy ever-so-svelte Muffy a most fattening mocha frappuccino with whipped cream. It was like so frightening.”

Or this phrase: “He/she went missing”, or worse, “had gone missing”. News people say this all the time. I’ve know people who have been missing for a time, like when Nordstrom has a shoe sale. I know people who are missing for days then, or at least as long as the sale lasts.

“Hey, where’s what’s-her-name? I have not seen her lately,” I might say.

“She went missing,” comes the reply. No, she is missing. She went to the shoe sale at Nordstrom.

 Another one: “He/she turned up dead”. Yes, the media uses this one frequently, too. “So-and-so turned up dead, after he went missing two months ago.” Hey, guys like shoes, too. Why didn’t they check Nordstrom? 

“Turned up dead”. That is such a curious way to describe the end of a life.

One more: “Who knew?” You hear this used frequently, usually after a question that the speaker of the phrase could not answer. I think it is a rhetorical question.

Who needs rhetorical questions?

I think this phrase has its origins in our ancient history. When I hear it, I immediately have an image of cave dwellers gathered around a big fire in a large cave somewhere in prehistoric times. The clan leader, in an effort to provide security, must have asked, “Who new?”

In the back somewhere a stranger must have replied, “Me new. Me Og.”

If Og did not socialize well into the clan, he may have gone missing, only later to turn up dead. To record it all, one of our communication-prone ancestors probably drew a picture of it on the wall, and another reported it to the clan.

“In other cave news, Og, a newcomer, who went missing recently after a cave meeting, turned up dead in the bone pile today. Witnesses say a stone axe-brandishing assailant was observed running from the scene. Now, back to you, Uluk.”

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There have been some interesting and instructive, if disturbing, events lately involving communication. At the top of the list has to be Iran’s leader speaking at Columbia University.

Should he have been allowed to speak at Coloumbia? You will hear fervant arguments on either side of the issue, but he was welcomed to speak. In the past, Columbia has not extended the same privilege to other voices who are a lot less dangerous than this person. Or worse, audiences have shouted down individuals who were asked to speak. Why is that? Why have others not been given the same courtesy as the highly controversial leader of Iran?

More With Les does not discuss politics. That is not my purpose. I see some recent events in terms of communication issues. Accordingly, why is it that we have lost our ability, or our willingness, to listen to other viewpoints? What are we afraid of?

For example, a blogger buddy of mine is currently talking about PRSA’s announcement that Karen Hughes, former Bush advisor and now an ambassador for the U.S. State Department charged with spreading a pro-democracy message around the world to fight terriorism, will speak at the group’s October conference. Sadly, much of the discussion centers on how she will likely be booed off the stage by conference attendees.

Booed by “professional” communicators? Why? Are we to believe that professional communicators are so afraid of this woman or have such contempt for her for whatever reason that they must shout her down at a professional forum? Is listening politely to her such a damaging ordeal that professionals cannot be expected to sit quietly by and let her speak?

This is profoundly disturbing to me. Nazis burned books. Oppressive regimes all over the world, including Iran, silence their critics in sometimes unspeakable ways. Are Americans becoming so hardened ideologically that we simply cannot listen to opposing viewpoints?

If Hughes does speak at the PRSA conference and is shouted down, then it will be a sad day indeed. If professional communicators disruptively boo her because she represents a different political ideology from theirs, or whatever reason, then it will be a black eye for PRSA.  Further, the entire profession will be cheapened and diminished. If the speaker was a known enemy of the United States like Ahmadinejad or Hugo Chavez or any given Al Qaeda leader, then the situation would be different. But Karen Hughes?

I hope the attendees will have the common courtesy to behave like true professionals. That does not mean blind agreement with this or any other speaker. It simply means acting professionally, listening politely, and not denigrating the event, the association, or the profession by shouting someone down. If an attendee cannot stand the message or the messenger, don’t attend. Or, simply get up and leave, and on the way out, grab a session evaluation form and register your feelings about it. That is a more professional way for professionals to act.

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I love my job

Driving to work this morning, I kept thinking how much I love my job teaching Mass Comm at Towson University. I am one blessed human being.

I love driving up to Van Bokkelen Hall on campus, the location of my office and classroom. Van Bokkelen Hall. I love that name. It sounds so colleagiate. You know, in a gray pony tail, corduroy sport jacket with patched sleeves, eccentric professor kinda way.

I do not know who Van Bokkelen was, but obviously someone of means and influence. I wish I could have met him or her.

“Hello, I’m Les Potter. I teach in the hall named for you,” I’d say with awe and respect. “Van Bokkelen…are you one of the old Back Bay Van Bokkelens?”

“I beg your pardon!” he or she would probably say. Then you’d have proof positive that he or she were of means. Where I come from, no one ever says, “I beg your pardon.” They just shoot at you.

Mr. or Ms. building namesake Van Bokkelen probably has a first name like Reginald or Natasha. With a last name like Van Bokkelen, you just can’t have a first name like Skeeter or Bessie Sue. It just isn’t done.

My drive to campus from home in Vienna, Virginia, is 65 miles. I love it. It is good thinking/planning time. Cutting through the crisp fall air this morning in my 2003 certified pre-owned, fully-optioned Buick Park Avenue, I thought of my interview for the job back in 2004. After leaving the interview, I loaded my wheelchair and headed home to Virginia. It was then that I received the sign.

I knew I had to have this job, because I received a confirming sign from God right after I left campus. There, right across from the Towson U campus, was a Starbucks. That in itself is no big deal, because you can drive south to Washington, D.C., and see one on every corner, about 2,700 of them in all, I think.

But this was different. It was truly a sign from God that I must work here because the Starbucks had a drive through window! Paraplegia heaven.

I said out loud, “Thank yoooo, JEEZus! For this is truly a sign that you want me here.”

The rest is history. I am now in my fourth year of teaching at Towson, and I love it even more each day, if that is possible.

When I was recuperating from surgery this summer, all 76 days in the hospital, I had a photo of my classroom on the wall. You are probably thinking, “I can see his liking the drive through Starbucks, for that makes a certain amount of sense. But a photo of his classroom?” Strange indeed.

But apart from giving you some insight into my social life, it also represents my love for this job. Heck, at 59-and-a-half, I am lucky to have such a wonderful position. I mean, look at the options available. At my age and with gray hair, plus a B.A. in Communication, an MBA, and an almost-completed Ed.D. in Instructional Technology, I am uniquely qualified to be, well, a greeter at Wal-Mart.

“Hello. Welcome to Wal-Mart. Ya’ll come on in!” I’d say with awe and respect. But I’ll bet I would not greet any Van Bokkelens there. But Skeeter and Bessie Sue would be regulars.

I could sit there in my wheelchair wearing a little blue vest with a big name tag saying LESTER and practice what many consider to be public relations for a 12-hour shift at minimum wage.

No, that’s not for me. I was a fully-engaged strategic communication/PR practitoner for 35 years prior to being honored by Towson with this job. My plan is to finish my Ed.D. and teach for the next 35 years.

I am sure I will love every minute of it. After that, well, there is always Wal-Mart.

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A MySpace story

Once upon a time a high school freshman in Virginia announced to his parents that he wished to learn to play the guitar.

“That’s an interesting idea,” his parents said, “but to ensure that you are serious, you will need to do some research before we agree to fund this.”

Excitement turned to disappointment in a heart beat. “Research?” he asked.

“Yes. First, find a local teacher, preferably close by,” the parents said. “Then find out the best type, brand, and cost of a suitable starter guitar.”

He did all his research in a timely and efficient manner. His new guitar teacher, a competent and motivating fellow named Buzz, lived a few streets over. Very convenient indeed. With the new, entry level guitar Buzz suggested, the high school freshman began to learn to play the guitar.

And learn he did. He practiced for hours every day for months, and his skill grew quickly. After much hard work and dedication, he was one wailing guitarist. He formed a band and played at a local youth group every Sunday night after church. His band, Flannel Mice, was never destined to win a grammy. But our young guitarist got to feel the hot stage lights and hear the screams of adoring fans as he played bluesy riffs on his lipstick red Ibanez electric guitar.

Fast forward to last week. The wailing guitarist is now 31 years old, married with one child and another on the way. In addition to his family responsibilities, he heads his own consulting firm, travels extensively, and in general, has had little time to play guitar.

He missed the thrill and satisfaction of making music, so he recently decided it was time to resurrect his guitar playing. He also decided that, since so much time had passed, he would seek out a teacher and take some refresher lessons. This time his research was easier. He started with Microsoft Live (Live.com), through which he found several possible local teachers. He then used MySpace to gain more information about a promising prospect. What luck! The prospective teacher lived close by to his home in North Carolina.

He didn’t recognize the name, but when he played samples of the teacher’s music posted on MySpace, he thought it all sounded vaguely familar. Even though it had been 13 years, he recognized the music and the musician. He called and asked for the teacher by his MySpace name. To his great surprise, the teacher said, “Call me Buzz.” 

Yes, that’s right. It was his original teacher, now relocated to North Carolina a few blocks away. Happily reunited, the guitarist, my beloved son Ray, and his teacher, Buzz, are again making music. Score another win for social media.

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Katherine George, ABC, CAE, president of Fredericksburg, Virginia-based Catalina Communications, is one of the most intelligent writers I know. Her editorial services include writing and editing for a wide variety of applications, organizations, and industries. She is especially knowledgeable about nonprofit organizations and associations in particular.

I mentioned her professional designations because they represent a career milestone I hope students will consider as they progress in their careers. The designations illustrate an avenue of professional development many pursue in order to gain the knowledge and experience they need to be successful. 

The “ABC” stands for Accredited Business Communicator, the International Association of Business Communicators’ (IABC) designation for those who have achieved excellence in organizational communication management. The “CAE” stands for Certified Association Executive, a designation earned from the American Society of Association Executives (ASAE) for association management expertise. This dual accreditation is a competitive advantage for Katherine’s consulting practice. She worked very hard to prepare herself to provide client services.

That said, I want to make a point about the mechanics of writing. I fervantly believe that good writers must first know how to use the language properly. That is fundamental. Just as Katherine prepared herself by pursuing dual accreditation, I am impressed with Katherine’s use of an extensive collection of stylebooks in order to use the language correctly. In my PR Writing classes, students use the ubiquitous Associated Press Stylebook. Katherine uses it and many more in her role as a writer and consultant on publishing. I think this is highly instructive.

The message to students who wish to become good writers is that there are many tools and resources, plus many professional development opportunities, out there for you. Use them. Real professionals do, no matter how much experience they have.

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Word Stir Fry

It is time to teach MCOM 357 Public Relations Writing again. Two sections. That’s 40 writing assignments a week to assess.

That’s a lot of what I call “word stir fry”. Inexperienced writers tend to create it. Lot’s of it. Bless them, for it just takes practice and experience to put words together in a meaningful, effective manner.

I probably spend more time thinking about how to teach communication/PR students to be effective writers than I do the other subjects I teach. Strategic communication/PR planning and management is far more easily taught than how to use the English language correctly and with clarity and interest.

I often wonder what teaching advice I would get from some of the luminaries out there. Great writers like The Surgeon David Murray. He uses words with surgical precision.

Then there is Steve Crescenzo, or as I call him, Bombasticles. Enough said.

One writer I follow is to writing what the smoothie is to drinks. My dear brother Robert J. Holland. Robert can write anything, and he can write it perfectly and make it interesting, too.

I asked my first mentor, a most talented writer, how I could learn to write better. He looked at me with disdain and said, “You can begin by ceasing to read those hot rod magazines and start reading good literature.”

My advice to you, dear students, is to do what we all do when we wish to learn to be better writers — read good writing. Starting with these guys is a good move. They will, in turn, lead you to others.

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It’s Always Something

First, my body breaks, and I spend from June 1 through August 15 in the hospital having two surgeries. Then I get out ready to catch up, and my Toshiba Satellite dies. Computerless, I have been silenced.

Fall semester classes started August 27. I was there, but a mere shadow of my former self. I am fighting back slowly and surely, but still had to cut the week short due to a return of high fever. But with a holiday weekend and plenty of rest, I’ll try again this week. I draw so much strength from my students and colleagues.

I am teaching four classes: two sections of PR writing, a strategic communication planning and management class, and strategic PR for nonprofit organizations. For my doctoral studies, I am doing an internship with my advisor.

I am also faculty advisor for Towson’s Student PR Group, which is comprised of both IABC student members and PRSSA members. The new officers are both dependable and dedicated, and it promises to be a good year for this important aspect of training future professionals.

Onward and upward.

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