What’s in a Name? Part II: A Border Brouhaha

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Map of Carson

As the current border brouhaha between Carson City Councilman Albert Robles and the Daily Breeze newspaper illustrates, there’s great importance attached to the names used for geographic areas – especially when they’re used in conjunction with undesirable activities or tarnished reputations.

In this case, the councilman drafted resolutions that would require the city to cancel its subscriptions to the Breeze and would urge residents to boycott the newspaper over its usage of “published accounts of homicides, other crimes and negative stories” that were reported as “misleadingly located ‘near Carson.’”

The Daily Breeze’s editor, Michael Anastasi, responded with a letter to the Council and residents that said the newspaper “has consistently referred to the unnamed unincorporated area of Los Angeles County near Carson as just that.” To his credit, he said, that: “While it is unfortunate that Carson may cease being a business client of the Daily Breeze, we will not bow to financial pressure.”

He offered to meet with city leaders and noted that no meeting had been requested prior to Robles public complaint. Robles has delayed action indefinitely on his resolutions and said he plans to meet with Anastasi.

As we noted in an earlier post, names are powerful. They can evoke entirely different emotions and leave entirely different perceptions among different groups of people and among different individuals. Successful communicators consider their audiences in choosing which words to use. In the case of Carson, the Daily Breeze likely never considered how its descriptions would affect Carson. Moreover, some of the stories Robles cited were written by City News Service, rather than the Breeze’s staff.

But similar efforts have changed neighborhoods’ names. Note, for instance, the successful campaign that changed South Central Los Angeles to South Los Angeles after the notoriety the neighborhood gained as the epicenter of the 1992 “civil unrest.” (Civil unrest was another term created to replace the word “riot” in referring to the violence that erupted after the acquittal of police officers in the beating of motorist Rodney King.) Property values often hinge on monikers, leading to the creation of such terms as Malibu adjacent or Beverly Hills Post Office, i.e. not in the City of Beverly Hills but assigned to use the postal services of Beverly Hills.

In the case of Carson, several have noted that the criticism came after a Daily Breeze story about political intrigue leading up to city elections, suggesting the border brouhaha may have more to do with the critical coverage than the geographic description. But the councilmember’s resolutions have kept the focus on the geographical description of incidents happening in an unincorporated part of Los Angeles County located between Carson and Torrance.

Robles pointed out that these areas could be described as Harbor Gateway or an unincorporated area near Torrance. Some consideration may be in order to more clearly describe the unincorporated areas in the Breeze’s circulation area.

The LA Times sought to do just that by creating a map of LA’s neighborhoods in 2009. But it faced substantial challenges and reached an imperfect compromise. The newspaper invited comments on its first attempt at mapping neighborhoods and received more than 1,500 comments, resulting in nearly 100 changes in the map.

After all this work, the paper said: “We’ll be the first to acknowledge that our map isn’t perfect. No lines can capture the geographic diversity and demographic energy of Los Angeles.”

What other communities have you seen renamed because of political, social or real estate concerns?

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MLK’s Communications Lessons Resonate Today

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As we honor the late Dr. Martin Luther King today, we also note that his remarkable ability to inspire and lead through his words and actions serve as examples for today’s communicators.

The success of the civil rights movement is due, in large part, to the effectiveness of Dr. King and its many other leaders in clearly defining their objectives, audiences and messages and in developing the tactics to deliver those messages to achieve their goals.

This year’s movie, “Selma,” while having some historical inaccuracies, illustrates the communications skills of Dr. King and the civil rights leaders in one tumultuous three-month period in 1965.

The movie portrays one of their many strategies to achieve the long-term objectives of ending segregation and achieving equality. The civil rights leaders in Selma were marching to secure the right to vote for all African Americans so they could change the people in power, especially in the South where racism helped elect and keep some politicians in power, such as then-Gov. George Wallace.

Their audiences were whites and African Americans alike. While some criticized the use of young people and women on the front lines of protests and marches, the images of fire hoses, whips and clubs unleashed on these nonviolent marchers moved the very audiences they were trying to reach. As the movie shows, the brutal attacks spurred white Americans to join the marchers in Selma.

Dr. King viewed his message very simply, saying, “Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into friend.” As the movie shows, his message of love, integration and nonviolent protest provided a powerful and persuasive counterpoint to other civil rights leaders, such as Malcolm X, who advocated for the establishment of a separate black community and the use of violence for self-defense. (The movie also illustrates the importance of Malcolm X’s advocacy in making Dr. King’s message more appealing to then-President Lyndon B. Johnson and other political leaders.)

The civil rights leaders’ tactics were to use words, actions and visibility in the media to change the law. In the movie, they discuss the likelihood of a violent reaction to their peaceful march. The sheriff delivers the reaction they had expected. The media broadcasts the brutality against the marchers around the country, generating the desired backlash against the sheriff and others who had denied African Americans the right to vote.

The marches in Selma spurred President Johnson to sign into law the Voting Rights Act of 1965 with Dr. King at his side, a law that has been called the single most effective piece of civil rights legislation ever approved by Congress.

Throughout the civil rights movement, Dr. King and the other leaders knew that the many nonviolent protests they waged would be ineffective if they were not covered by the media. Their effective use of words and actions drove media coverage, and that coverage drove change.

AARP Helping Caregivers

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We work with the AARP in educating its membership about a wide range of topics, including this month’s article on how one California legislator is using her firsthand experience to help the millions who provide care to their aging loved ones. Please see it by clicking here.

Assemblywoman Cheryl Brown helps her husband, Hardy, with daily tasks. She is authoring legislation to help California caregivers.

Assemblywoman Cheryl Brown helps her husband, Hardy, with daily tasks. She is authoring legislation to help California caregivers.

Lessons from Sony’s Hacked Emails

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Avoiding e-mail snafus

The revelation of racially insensitive comments in emails written by Sony Pictures Entertainment co-Chair Amy Pascal and producer Scott Rudin provide another lesson in what not to do with our most frequently used form of communication.

Their comments, suggesting President Obama would only like African American-focused movies, came to light because of a cyberattack on Sony. While most of us will never be the subject of a cyberattack, litigation and email snafus can easily expose our innermost thoughts, tasteless jokes and other ill-advised comments to the very people we would never wish to see them.

With auto-completer, it’s easy to accidentally send an email to the wrong person. Email recipients also can forward – either accidentally or on purpose – an email to others who may find the original emailed comments offensive or demeaning in some way. Litigation or complaints filed by a subordinate or employee can require disclosure of emails. The emails of public employees and contractors for public entities can be made public through reporters’ and others’ freedom of information or public records requests. In these cases, deleted emails may even be retrieved.

We’ve provided six commonsense rules for email in a previous post, so we won’t revisit those. But the media firestorm surrounding Pascal’s and Rudin’s emails remind us all – once again – that all communications should be professional. Being derisive, racist or sexist in comments not only opens us to litigation and damaging publicity – it’s just wrong.

Even with the most professional of approaches, we can still make errors or simply convey the wrong tone. Here are three easy tips to avoid such email snafus:

Re-read the email with the recipients in mind: Reading the email’s contents before sending the email and trying to put yourself in the position of the recipients will help gauge how the contents and wording will be received by them. If the email is especially sensitive or you’re still concerned about the contents, asking a colleague or friend to read it will provide the outside eye that may be needed to fully assess the potential impact of the language used.

Enter the email address last: This helps avoid sending the email prematurely. It also helps ensure the promised attachments are indeed attached.

Use the phone: Even with emoticons, jokes can often fall flat in print. We’ve said it before but it bears repeating: Pick up a phone if you wish to make a quip to someone or say something you wouldn’t want others to see in print. Pascal and Rudin claimed they were joking in their exchanges. Both have apologized, but speculation is swirling that Pascal’s days are numbered at Sony.

Six Commonsense Tips for Avoiding Email Contretemps

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California Public Utilities Commission President (PUC) Michael Peevey’s  announcement yesterday that he would not seek another six-year term in the job was not a surprise after emails revealed a cozy relationship with at least one of the companies, PG&E, he’s charged with regulating.

Peevey had withstood his critics’ charges in the past, but the emails detailing a 2010 conversation with PG&E executives during dinner in Peevey’s home left him with no option but to announce his retirement now—rather than on Oct. 16, as he said he had planned to do. PG&E released the emails along with an announcement that it is under federal investigation for its relationship with the PUC. This email contretemps can be instructive for all who do business in the public or in publicly traded companies.

Emails, text messages and other forms of electronic communications are too often treated cavalierly, with little regard for the ramifications they may have either inside or outside the company. From failed attempts at humor to potentially criminal comments, emails and text messages can cause fallout far beyond the intended recipients.

Following are sixEmail in haste, repent in leisure? commonsense tips for avoiding crimes, misdemeanors and – the more common – misunderstandings caused by electronic communications.

  1. The Front Page Rule

It’s a little old-fashioned to talk about newspapers’ front pages, but it’s a simple way to remember a rule that still works:  Don’t do something you wouldn’t want to see on the front page of your hometown newspaper.

In Peevey’s case, he failed the front-page test by having an intimate dinner at his seaside home with executives from PG&E, which is regulated by the PUC. But what put the dinner on the front page were the email descriptions of his comments: They said Peevey suggested PG&E donate $1 million to defeat an initiative the PUC opposed and that he expected PG&E and other utilities to give $100,000 each to finance a 100th anniversary celebration for the PUC.

Increasingly, emails are an essential part of any criminal or civil investigation or litigation. Envisioning how a prosecutor or a competitor might use those emails in a court of law will help avoid writing something that could become an embarrassment or a criminal or civil liability.

  1. Be Courteous and Thoughtful

Rarely does an email or text rise to the level of criminal or civil investigation. But they can certainly lead to misunderstandings and hurt feelings in the workplace.

Thoughtlessly dashing off an email or text can trigger fallout far beyond the intended recipient. Among the more common failures is using the wrong tone. Such simple, old-fashioned words as “please” and “thank you” will help. Using proper salutations also indicates a more thoughtful approach. Re-reading the email before distributing it, out loud if possible to envision how the recipients will view it, will help ensure the communication hits the right tone. Considering that it might be forwarded to someone else also will help avoid critical remarks that might sting if it is forwarded.

  1. CC Appropriately

On major and often minor undertakings, there is a list of people who should – or feel they should – be included in any decision or communications regarding that decision.

Recognizing who should and should not be included on the cc line of an email is essential to effectively communicating within an organization and can be one of the biggest challenges.  Likewise, stopping to think before hitting “reply all” will help avoid annoying co-workers who don’t need to know each response to the email’s originator.

  1. Be Timely

At the same time thoughtfulness is required, so is timeliness. Failure to respond in a timely fashion to an email can send a signal that the sender is not important. Unfortunately, today’s mobile devices often mean responses can be expected on weekends, nights and holidays. Understanding the expectations in the workplace for response times is essential to successful communications. Setting “out of office” outgoing messages, even when the period of time away is relatively short, can also help avoid misunderstandings.

  1. Know which Communications to Use

Texting is increasingly the choice for short and quick messages. But different people and generations view texting differently. Moreover, some data plans don’t accommodate a large amount of texting, so a text may cost the recipient additional fees.

Asking if it’s okay to text someone is a good first step. Moreover, knowing with whom and when to use text or email will help make communications successful.

  1. Meet in Person

Face-to-face meetings remain the best, but probably least used, form of communication in today’s fast-paced workplace. Facial expressions and body language give clear signals about how a message is received. At the least, hearing the tone of a person’s actual voice over a phone will help gauge the response. Such personal communications can quickly clear up misunderstandings and, in most cases, avoid your words coming back to haunt you on the front page of the newspaper.

What other recommendations would you have for better digital communications?