When I saw the musical Rent on Broadway some years ago, I remembered only one piece of music from it. It was, of course, “Seasons of Love” where the cast tries to figure out a yardstick for measuring the final year in a friend’s life. It amounted to five-hundred-twenty-five-thousand-six-hundred minutes all told – but it was so much more. As I contemplate the past 26 years of university teaching, writing, meeting-going and student advising, I’m struck with my own thirteen-million-six-hundred-and-sixty-five-thousand-six-hundred minutes – not all of which was spent in academia, but you get the picture. It was a long time. But once you get past that time passage, what is left? How can I truly measure what my career has meant?
Do I measure it by the number of classes I actually taught? That seems a bit too dogmatic for me. What about courses I developed? That’s a bit more meaningful since many of them are left behind as a kind of legacy. What about the number of meetings I attended? Not for a second does that measure what this career has meant, although many of those meeting resulted in new and wonderful evolutions of my department. Do I measure it in the number of articles or books I wrote? I like that number, but it isn’t the measure of my career. What about the number of students who have sat in my classrooms over 26 years? That’s hardly a measure since just sitting there doesn’t really count for much at all. But if I begin to consider the number of students who have learned from me, or for whom I have made a difference, that’s the kind of measure that would be meaningful. The trouble is, I have no idea what that number might be.
Have I affected hundreds? Ten or twenty? How about two or three? That would be something, but I truly don’t know. Anyway, if I need to know this, it means that I’m looking outward for the measure of my career, when I now know that I really should be looking within. What has this career meant to me?
When I look at the tangibles that have emerged from my career, I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished. The department within which I taught was established in 1977 and had enjoyed considerable success already when I joined the full-time faculty in 1989 as an Assistant Professor as we do. I had already spent 15 years in health care and medical writing. Several years later I was tenured and promoted to Associate Professor. That’s good. But what I’m particularly proud of was that I was promoted to full Professor in 2005, becoming the first full Professor in the history of our department. That made me feel good about my work since it required not only that departmental and university review, but also a review from four external academics in Canada and the US who all said my work warranted the promotion.
Then a colleague and I vowed that we would not retire before the establishment of a graduate program in our department. She did the heavy lifting of steering the proposal through the many levels of bureaucracy that is academia in Canada and compiled the final proposals. I was the curriculum developer for what are now two very well-established Masters-level degrees. Whenever I look at the curriculum and its framework, I can still see the work that I did – and it was worthwhile.
I also developed and taught the first distance course online in our department opening up the now well-established distance component of several of our programs. I’m proud of this.
I was also the developer of a new undergraduate program that required the establishment of a national network of support – unfortunately, those who have followed me have not maintained those relationships. Pity. I don’t know what will become of the program that was hailed as wonderful addition to communication education in Canada, but that is no longer my problem.
I also had the opportunity to develop and teach some fun courses. I developed and taught a course in creativity in corporate communication. I remember the day we explored meditation as a way to unearth creative approaches to solving problems. A colleague peeked in through the small window in the classroom door to find us all sitting cross-legged on the floor, me conducting class from that vantage point. When I bump into former students online these days, once in a while one will say how much she enjoyed that course. That feels good and I hope it has made a difference. I was lucky to have taught at a university that was open to these kinds of experiments in teaching.
I have written a couple of what have become rather successful textbooks during my tenure at the university – in fact, one of them is purportedly the best-selling book on its subject internationally; consequently about two months ago, I was approached by my publisher to consider writing a third edition. Just yesterday she offered me the contract. I’ll do that while penning a second edition of another one for another publisher.
These are some of my concrete accomplishments, and if I really need to be reminded of these and others, all I have to do is look myself up in Canada’s Who’s Who!
It has to be said that I was an accidental academic. When I was in grad school, I didn’t set my sights on academia. The opportunity came into my life, however, at precisely the right time, and looking back it is clear to me that it was the right decision. I have been privileged to have had a job that I loved (less so over the past two or three years, though). I have been privileged to have worked with some wonderful people – of course there were a few duds as well.
I have never, however, felt like I belonged. Perhaps it is precisely because I was an accidental academic. I never took for granted that I was supposed to be there. I never felt entitled to that job (as I often felt was the timbre of some colleagues). My university promotes the concepts of “community” and “inclusiveness” but I never felt included. It seems that you are included regardless of colour, creed, ethnic or sexual orientation etc. But most of my university colleagues (outside my department mostly) never even paid lip service to those of us whose politics and social realms were different. I stopped going to faculty association events and meetings very early on. I don’t think that mattered to anyone in any event.
But now I come to the end of that part of my life and think about what it has meant. If I’ve made even a slight difference to anyone whose life I’ve touched, that is good enough for me.
Now I move on. I move on to writing novels and traveling the world with my husband, my best (and perhaps only) friend in the world. Valete dico – I say farewell.
“This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.” – T.S. Elliot’s “The Hollow Men.”
At the behest of my publisher, I’ve just completed a proposal for a third edition of my book Ethics in Public Relations: A Guide to Best Practice. As I pondered the changes and updates that would be appropriate for this new edition, I asked a couple of PR professors/instructors who use the book as classroom reading material if they had any thoughts about what’s missing at this stage.
One of the issues that rises to the top is the fact that as social media offers more and more access to communication tools without benefit of the traditional gatekeepers – such as editors – public relations and corporate communication practitioners, who have always had extraordinary power to influence, have accrued even more power. There is no longer a need to pitch all stories to editors or journalists for example. We can go straight to the target. This increases the power and brings to bear significant responsibilities that need to be faced.
The power inherent in the practice of public relations as we know it today is at the heart of the ethical issues that face practitioners. That power stems from the application of strategies and tactics that are designed to influence the way people think about organizations, issues, people and products. Unfortunately, many neophytes – and sadly even more seasoned practitioners – fail to understand this power.
Remember the movie Wag the Dog? If you don’t, you should make a point of watching it with a view to considering the power to influence. The very idea that a communicator can make a whole country believe that there is a war going on when there isn’t just to take attention off another political story is chilling.
And what about the film Thank-You for Smoking? A satirical look at big business, it shines a very clear light on the possibilities of persuading people to do all manner of activities that might in fact be harmful to them – but that line the pockets of particular industries. This is interestingly timely in light of the recent Quebec Supreme Court decision to hold big tobacco responsible for health problems faced by long-time smokers.
These are fictional but potent commentaries on the power of persuasion and the power of the well-developed and implemented strategy. The use of power also suggests opportunities for abuse.
Real examples include Hitler’s ability to use persuasive techniques to further his anti-Semitic agenda and the US government’s 1990 strategy to sell the first Iraq War to the American people. You might call the first example propaganda and dismiss it as “not PR.” You’d be wrong. The two are intertwined and often only a matter of semantics. In the second instance you cannot so easily dismiss it – the government actually hired public relations firm Hill and Knowlton to develop and implement a clever PR strategy. And it was a breathtaking success.
Although public relations as a basic management function in organizations is the process of developing and maintaining long-term, mutually beneficial relationships, a large part of that relationship management involves tactics that inform and persuade – that persuasive communication is wherein lies the potential for abuse of power. Discussions of public relations ethics often focus on these major issues such as persuasion versus propaganda, and less frequently shed light on daily activities, which contribute in a big way to the overall persuasive power of PR.
Aside from the day-to-day ethical dilemmas that all working people face (such as whether to use the office photocopier for making copies of your resume, sleeping with the boss etc.), the ethical issues of importance to PR practitioners stem from PR’s influential role. The question is: Do most PR and corporate communication professionals recognize this? It is important, then for us to take the time to focus our attention on the activities that make up our days as practitioners, and that we often fail to examine for their moral implications.