Final Goodbyes of 2012

As the year comes to a close, it’s fitting to remember those who’ve gone but can’t, or shouldn’t be, forgotten.

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Daniel Inouye – Like many Japanese-Americans of his generation, he was reviled, discriminated against, locked away into concentration camps, looked down upon. And like many, to prove his loyalty to his country, he went to war. In Inouye’s case, he suffered, soldiered on and became an honest-to-God American, Medal-of-Honor-winning hero. The story goes that he went into a San Francisco barber shop on his way home, still wearing the uniform of an Army captain (with one sleeve pinned up because he’d lost an arm in the Italian campaign) and the barber refused to cut his hair because he was Japanese. A mark of shame on my hometown. Inouye became the first Asian-American member of the House, and first in the Senate. He died as the most senior member of Congress. He was steadfast in his principles and admired for his humanity.

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Johnny Otis – Brilliant and revolutionary bandleader, showman, musician, developer of talent. ‘Hand Jive’ anyone?

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Etta James – A singer who can get you up dancing and break your heart at the same time. Coincidentally, one of Johnny Otis’ great discoveries.

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Joe Paterno – His players practically worshiped him but his reputation will be forever linked and, therefore, sullied by his connection to a sexual abuse scandal centered around a former assistant.

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Earl Scruggs – A giant. A legend. A pioneer. A person who, defying all odds, brought soulfulness to the banjo.

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Dick Clark – Forget the new year’s eve caricature he became. He broke ground and he sincerely loved teenagers and their music.

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Levon Helm – Listen to him sing. Read his lyrics. You can’t mistake him for anybody else.

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Mike Wallace – The number-one case in point for this axiom: fearless journalists piss powerful people off.

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Maurice Sendak – He turned a very uncertain and unhappy childhood into art adored by millions of children and adults alike.

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Carlos Fuentes – Great writer of brutally honest fiction.

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Doc Watson – Changed the lives of thousands of musicians and maybe millions of fans with his clear and honest singing about the lives of real people.

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Rodney King – Beaten by LA cops, who were filmed doing it. All holy hell broke loose when they were acquitted. Then, in all sincerity, Rodney King asked his townsfolk to get along and stop killing each other. For his efforts, he was turned into a national joke. He deserved better.

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Andy Griffith – On popular TV shows for, like, 50 years but he still died an underestimated and underappreciated actor.

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Ernest Borgnine – Played honest-to-God working-class American men with gravity and honesty. They don’t make guys like him or movies like that anymore, to our great loss.

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Kitty Wells – Raw and honest voice. A trailblazer for women in music. Ran her own life and her own career her way. Also a beautiful, generous and gracious human being.

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Sally Ride – Terms like “role model” and “hero” get thrown around like nickels these days. I just wish kids knew less about people like Britney Spears and Lindsey Lohan and a whole lot more about people like Sally Ride.

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Neil Armstrong – The first line of every single obituary of Neil Armstrong? He was the first man to set foot on the moon. Do you need a second sentence? Every one my age or older remembers the precise moment.

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George McGovern – A war hero who wanted to end the useless and wasteful Vietnam War. As a result, he was chewed up by the Nixon campaign machine and made to look weak, unmanly. He told the truth.

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Margaret DuPont – Graceful, smart, tough as nails. Was she the first American female sports star? Many owe her a great debt of gratitude for making the model many now trade upon.

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Marvin Miller – Created major league baseball as we now know it. Helped players stand up to the organized servitude that was baseball. Hated by many. Hated.

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Hector Camacho – Grew up tough in Spanish Harlem. Became successful, rich, famous. Never lost the chip on his shoulder or need to live wild. Ended bad, as it had to, by a bullet to the head.

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Dave Brubeck – His iconic ‘Take Five’ may be the most recognized jazz song of all time. His bands were tight. His piano was beautiful. He represented his era well.

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Ravi Shankar – Classically-trained. Spiritual. A bridge between very different cultures.

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Onward State (GO!)

[Note: I’ve written about the Penn State sexual abuse case several times previously, first here, about Joe Paterno and later here, about the deeper institutional problems associated with sexual abuse.]

The report from the inquiry into the Penn State sexual abuse case has just been released. The New York Times’ coverage is here.

In my professional life as a communications consultant, I’ve dealt with numerous cases of sexual abuse; I have hard-earned insights about this heinous crime.

Here’s one: while individuals are and must be held responsible for their own actions, institutions, through selective attention (i.e., looking the other way), misplaced priorities (i.e., considering athletic success of paramount importance) and enabling (i.e., providing opportunity), create the conditions necessary for abuse to occur. Unless and until institutions are willing and able to address these conditions, abuse can continue.

This was certainly the case at Penn State (That’s what the inquiry’s report found.) and I’ve found it to be the case elsewhere.

So, Jerry Sandusky is in jail. Penn State and its football program will forever be linked with sexual abuse. Good but not enough, not nearly enough.

People like Sandusky can’t hurt kids without lots of help.

Not Off the Hook

Yesterday, a Pennsylvania jury convicted former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky on 45 counts.

Over the past 12 months, since the Jerry Sandusky case came to broad public awareness, I’ve written 3 pieces about him, Penn State and sexual abuse:

  1. The first discusses Joe Paterno and Penn State.
  2. The second takes a look inside the PR machines that get built around these cases.
  3. The third puts the case into the broader context of the year’s PR disasters.

While I am gratified that this particular child molester has been convicted and may never be free to molest again, I think we should all be very cautious about feelings of relief. A great many people knew about Sandusky’s behavior for a very long time before his arrest and did nothing. In my professional experience with sexual abuse, which is considerable, this is often the case, despite what would-be Rambos assert afterward.

Most people will still go into denial, look away, or become impotent bystanders when faced with evidence of sexual abuse.

We can take some measure of comfort from Sandusky’s conviction, but it’s all for naught if we remain bystanders when evidence of abuse presents itself in our own lives.

PR Disasters – How Not To

Crises happen and communicating through them successfully is hard work. Here are some examples of crisis communication done the wrong way. Read. Learn. Avoid.

Netflix

Netflix has often had troubles communicating with its customers. This year, the CEO’s announcement that he was going to split the company in two puzzled everyone – there was no clear plan or even the slightest hint at a reasonable rationale for the move. Share value plunged, and the announcement was rescinded a mere 23 days later. Analysts wonder if Netflix will regain its previous status as the dominant market player.

News International

The worldwide reputation of News International and CEO Rupert Murdoch took an enormous hit when its newspapers in England were accused of bribing police and illegally wiretapping celebrities, politicians and crime victims. Early denials had to be retracted as more and more evidence proving long-standing patterns of truly horrible behavior made its way to the public.

Lowes

If you’re a home improvement retail chain, here’s something you would pretty much likely want to avoid – having your company name invoked again and again in a political controversy  over Islam in the month before the Christmas shopping season. Lowes pulled ads from a TLC reality show called “All-American Muslim” after receiving Florida Family Association (FFA) demands that it do so.  The FFA asserted the show was really undercover “propaganda that riskily [SIC] hides the Islamic agenda’s clear and present danger to American liberties and traditional values.” Lowes denied the FFA demands had anything to do with its decision, but could not and did not offer a clear explanation as to why it stopped advertising.

Sony 
Over 77 million PlayStation Network accounts were shut down by Sony after the company learned it had been seriously hacked. After many initial refusals to be open about the breaches, Sony contacted customers with mild recommendations for improved Internet safety and a promise the problem would be corrected within 2 weeks. New security problems and breaches pushed that date back again and again. Customers were left to wonder about whether, and to what extent, their own data had been compromised. Cost to the company was estimated at $24 billion in expenses and lost revenue.

Penn State

[My personal thoughts about Penn State and Joe Paterno are here.]

Sexual abuse cases are pure poison for educational institutions. The case involving former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky (photo, above) not only brought down his former boss, the beloved Joe Paterno, and the university’s president, it significantly damaged the reputation of Penn State. The university tried to cover up allegations and evidence of abuse by Sandusky for years before finally admitting wrongdoing and its complicit silence.

Congressman Anthony Weiner 

Weiner sent a college student a photo of his erect penis via Twitter. When the photos quickly circulated the Internet, as Twitter photos are known to do, and landed in the hands of mainstream news organizations, Weiner denied vehemently they were of his member.

When a second person came forward with photos Weiner had sent her, the congressman was forced to call a press conference and admit he’d engaged in the behavior. Soon after, he resigned his seat in Congress.

Durex South Africa

More Twitter stupidity.

Posted on the official DurexSA (condom maker) Twitter account: “Why did God give men penises? So they’d have at least one way to shut a woman up.”

Really funny, huh? Especially in a country that has a serious problem with sexual assault and rape. The company might have issued an apology and the story might have died there. But to lengthen the story and compound the problem the same account posted a defensive whine: “We have posted many jokes, see our timeline… And they not violent against woman! Re-read it!!!!!”

The company eventually apologized, but not before ruining its reputation.

MF Global

In October, after MF Global declared bankruptcy $1.2 billion in customers’ funds were discovered missing.

MF Global CEO Jim Corzine resigned but refused to disclose the disposition of his former customers’ accounts. In sworn congressional testimony, Corzine, the former New Jersey governor, insisted he had no idea what happened to the money and wasn’t aware of the missing funds until MF Global filed for bankruptcy.

Republican Presidential Candidates 

Politics and party aside, these public figures were in a class by themselves. One wonders about the level of campaign staff professionalism.

  • Herman Cain – Cain self-destructed with a lethal combination of ignorance and confidence. He was hit with multiple allegations of extra-marital affairs, always difficult for a “values” candidate, but it was really his poor staff work that finished him off. This interview at a major newspaper’s editorial board revealed his complete lack of preparation for both in the meeting and the job of president.
  • Michele Bachmann – Bachmann has been prone to gaffes throughout her career, so her presidential campaign proved to be an apt moment for opponents to find and disseminate her “greatest hits.” Rather than claiming many were taken out of context, or that she’d evolved her positions as she grew on the job as a member of Congress, Bachmann most frequently chose to either reiterate her indefensible positions or make even more confusing and ignorant ones.
  • Rick Perry – Perry’s entry was much anticipated; he achieved almost instantaneous front-runner status. Almost immediately, however, Perry displayed a complete lack of focus and preparation. Rumors, supported by viral videos, swirled that he’d made campaign appearances drunk or high. His inability at a nationally-televised campaign debate, to name the three federal agencies he wanted to close sealed his political fate.

Paterno, Penn State and sexual abuse

[Self-disclosure: I have worked on several sexual abuse cases as a public relations and communications professional.]

Following his death after a long battle with lung cancer, many questions have been raised about the life and lasting legacy of long-time Penn State University football coach, Joe Paterno.

My friend, the Philadelphia Inquirer’s John Timpane, wrote today about social media and reactions to Joe Paterno’s death. Slate’s Torrie Bosch wondered if it was even appropriate to mourn the death of Joe Paterno.

Joe Paterno was a man, a human being. He had all the flaws, the mixture of positive and negative characteristics the term “human” suggests. Among coaches of big-time college football programs, he was known to care deeply about the welfare of his players, as people and students, in addition to athletes. This set him apart from the majority of his peers, who have obviously come to care more deeply about wins, losses and revenues than school, who tend to think of their programs as little more than college-sponsored pre-professional athletic camps. To many observers of college athletics, the Ivy-educated Paterno was always one of the “good guys.”

How does this image square with the coach’s indifference, or worse, about allegations of his former colleague’s sexual abuse of children?

In all my experience with sexual abuse, and it has been more than plenty, the human reaction I have seen, for the most part, is not active engagement but denial. People will tell themselves all manner of tortured narrative to avoid seeing evidence of abuse that stares them directly in the face. It’s only after the fact that people turn themselves into steel-eyed, bare-knuckled avengers – asserting their courage and forthrightness:

  • “I would have punched that guy’s lights out.”
  • “I would have taken a tire-iron to that guy.”
  • “I would have called the cops right then.”

Some form of that is what a great many people said when they heard about what Joe Paterno did (or didn’t do) when informed of allegations about his former assistant Jerry Sandusky.

These people may, indeed, have acted that way when faced with an allegation of sexual abuse aimed at an old friend and colleague, but it has not been my personal experience of people’s behavior in the actual moment. My direct experience tells me most people, if faced with the same situation, would have:

  • Told themselves they didn’t actually see or hear what they did
  • Told themselves someone had misinterpreted some innocent activity or other
  • Told themselves someone else must have told the appropriate authorities
  • Told themselves it wasn’t like their friend and former colleague to do that

Since that’s what my experience suggests to me, I’m inclined to accept as plausible both the Joe Paterno who didn’t push the allegations of his former assistant’s sexual abuse as vigorously as he should have, and the Joe Paterno who seemed to care for his charges like the benevolent grandfather his players and former players describe.

And, today, I believe it is right and proper to mourn that human being.