Never Forget September 11: Seeing is Believing

The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 were shocking and incomprehensible for most of us. Suddenly our world had changed, and we didn’t see it coming. U.S intelligence officials had been tracking Al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations for years, and there had been significant attacks carried out overseas. Most of the American public took little notice at the time.

Then on September 11, we looked at our TV screens and saw those jets crashing into the twin towers. We could now see for ourselves that there exists an enemy bent on our total destruction.

Like many, I will never forget where I was and what I was doing when the first plane struck the twin towers. I was running the newsroom at a Boston television station, planning and executing local news assignments. After work I would join my family to celebrate my wife’s birthday. I never made it to the birthday celebration that night. My wife’s birthday would never be the same. No one in this country would ever be the same. Our world had changed.

As Americans we immediately showed our resolve, banding together in patriotic spirit, realizing there was nothing more important than defeating our enemies who say they will never rest until we are eliminated.

We never thought we were this vulnerable. Then we saw with our own eyes that we were. Our world had changed.

During the course of 13 years, with heightened security and awareness of terrorist threats, it seems natural to relax a bit. But then Americans were once again subjected to visual images that shocked our nation into action: American journalists being beheaded by ISIS terrorists.

It was back in March, 2013 that ISIS seized the Syrian city of Raqqa. In February, 2014, Al Qaeda renounced ISIS as too brutal and impatient. But despite the critically important events taking place in Syria, ISIS was barely ever mentioned in the media by our leaders. Instead, our focus was still on removing our troops from Iraq. Even though ISIS had been making considerable noise since 2011, most of us had never heard of the group. Then we saw an American murdered on video. And then another.

Our world that changed so much on September 11, 2001 has not changed much since. Our enemies are still there, threats to our freedoms and very existence are quite real.

We all realize it now, because we saw it again, with our own eyes.

Though I now work to enhance media relations for a variety of top clients, I still view the September 11 attacks and aftermath though a journalist’s eye. I can only hope these eyes never have to see anything resembling the horrible scenes witnessed 13 years ago.

It’s a small world?

Last week, CBRpr tweeted how a Ukrainian government adviser used Facebook to communicate about the plane tragedy. It got me thinking about how pundits predicted that social media would unite the world. That it would bring people together. That it would bring peace.

As a member of IPREX, an international consortium of top PR firms, we’ve seen firsthand how regular contact with our fellow worldwide members can bring understanding, empathy, compassion – and synergy! — to serve our clients. Back in 2001, a US Navy crew and plane were detained for 11 days on mainland China. I reached out to our IPREX partner in Beijing via email. He responded in kind. We were new acquaintances suddenly put on opposite sides of a fence we thought had diminished.

That September, IPREX partners reached out via email to our Manhattan-based partner to offer support, housing, blood, whatever we could provide to alleviate the pain of the attacks on the World Trade Center.

Fast forward to 2013, when government officials in Syria shut down social media during their recent crisis – virtually controlling external communications.

In 2014, the Malaysian government used Twitter to notify families of the missing passengers. That struck me as callous and distant.

A few months later, a Ukrainian official used a Facebook post to communicate about the shot-down aircraft.

Today, the scared little girl who obediently knelt and covered her head in the school hallway during the Cold War bombing drills, wonders why social media has not brought the peace and understanding we thought for sure it would. The grownup in me still believes in that important one word: “…yet.”

Lori C. Booker, APR, is founder and CEO of CBR Strategic Communications and is a respected news media commentator.

Navajo Windtalkers- the end of an era

“The end of an era.” How many times have we heard that and shrugged? What could that possibly mean to me? An article in today’s Orlando Sentinel caught my attention for both business and personal reasons. Many of you know that I am the (too) proud mom of teenage twins, adopted at birth, both (of course) with a very strong Native American heritage.

Today’s announcement that the last of the 29 Navajo Code Talkers has died (and the story written by reporter Joseph Kolb) hit several chords.  As a linguist I am fascinated by secret and dying languages.  As a mother of twins, I’ve seen firsthand the magical language they developed as mere babies, communicating in a tongue no one else was privy to.  I once tried to mimic what they called one another when they stopped and stared at me with a look that said in volumes, “Did we give you permission to talk in our language? We don’t think so.”  I never did it again.  But I did grab the video camera to capture it before they inevitably switched to my native tongue.

Back during World War II, Navajo Nation members were recruited to communicate in their native language to outsmart the enemy.  Despite their best efforts, the Japanese were unable to crack the “code”.  They are credited with saving thousands of lives and even shortening the war.  One language, understood by only 30 people in the world, saved thousands of lives.

Now try and tell me that knowing a dying language isn’t important.

With this blog, CBR salutes the “Windtalkers” who were also awarded Congressional Medals of Honor.  For your bravery, skills, responsiveness and results, we, too, salute you.  You were called “communications specialists” by the military.

How ironic on this very same day, CBR is shuffling through resumes to hire for a position we naively call “communication specialist”, not knowing the originations of that important position in our history of freedom fighters.  These young people will communicate in yet a newer language, social media-speak.

The world of languages and communication continues to fascinate us at CBR.  And today – especially so.  Thank you, Windtalkers.

Lori C. Booker, APR, is founder and CEO of CBR Strategic Communications and is a respected news media commentator.

AP Style, The Mother Tongue of Journalism

A couple of recent experiences here at CBR reminded us about the importance that journalism training plays – or should play – in public relations careers.

The first was a post on Ragan.com noting changes in the 2013 Associated Press Stylebook. That brought back a vivid memory for me from my days as a freshman journalism major.

On day one, our wizened journalism department dean gave us one assignment — memorize the AP stylebook. He was the first of many instructors and editors to refer to the stylebook as the journalist’s bible. Of course, that would be bible with a lower-case “b”. The word Bible is capitalized only when making reference to Scriptures in the Old Testament or the New Testament — it says so right there on page 31 of  the AP Stylebook (2011 edition).

The newest stylebook edition, published May 29, 2013, tells us, among other things, that it’s now okay to use numerals for all references to distance and dimension, e.g. a 3-mile stretch of road, a 9-pound hammer.

So why should the public relations industry care about such minutiae?

The answer is as simple and fundamental as anything we do. In order to communicate our clients’ key messages effectively, we must connect with our target audience. Just as we must learn the ins and outs of effective social media communications, we also must learn to speak the native language of the newsroom, and that’s AP style.

Reporters and editors often look for any excuse to spike (trash) a news release, and finding a glaring AP style mistake provides an easy one.

The second thing that got us thinking about the symbiotic relationship between journalism and public relations was our realization that some college public relations programs do not require a journalism course as part of their core curricula.

We’re back to basics on this one, too. Despite the ever-changing media landscape, there is a set of standards and ethics at the core of the journalism profession that defines news and drives day-to-day operations at every television news station and newspaper. Public relations professionals must have a working knowledge of those core standards and ethics.

As Florida’s premier media relations firm, we understand that public relations professionals — new and old — benefit from knowing as much as possible about the journalism side of the equation. Providing newsrooms with what they are looking for — timely, newsworthy, relevant, quirky items — written in their language improves our chances of getting our clients’ stories told.

It’s an integral part of our job here at CBR and one we do well.

Robert Perez is vice president at CBR.

Al Jazeera America: Media Friend or Foe?

Today (Aug. 20) marks the beginning of a bold experiment in American journalism and American cultural tolerance. The experiment in journalism is actually more like a return to the not-so-distant past while the experiment in cultural tolerance is the nation’s reaction to something it may not easily welcome.

If you haven’t figured it out yet, I’m speaking of the launch of the Al Jazeera America news network. Well-financed and vowing to offer viewers national news without slant, Al Jazeera America is the most controversial network to hit the airways since . . . well, there’s really no comparison.

Parent company Al Jazeera, which has operated in the Arab world since 1996, is best known on our shores as the news organization that brought us messages allegedly from Al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden in the months and years after the 9/11 bombings. What are we to think of a news organization with the dangerous-sounding name that somehow gained a foothold for news in the camp of the enemy, bringing the voice and venom of a jihadist organization into our collective living rooms?

Now, it is setting up shop in New York City saying it will raise the caliber of national news coverage. Its leadership, both foreign-born and domestic, claims it will provide balanced and unbiased national news coverage in the tradition of Walter Cronkite and David Brinkley. In other words, it is trying to set itself apart from the partisan coverage provided by the likes of FOX and MSNBC or the increasingly celebrity-centric CNN.

Al Jazeera America, which will be beamed into 48 million American homes, gained a foothold on American airways by buying the Current TV network (think Al Gore) in January for $500 million. Financed in part by the oil-rich government of Qatar, Al Jazeera America has hired a team of nearly 900 journalists and staff and plans to open a dozen news bureaus in cities such as Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami, Dallas and Denver.

Some of the journalists on the Al Jazeera team are familiar faces. They include former NBC news anchor John Seigenthaler, CNN’s Soledad O’Brien, CBS’ Joie Chen and Good Morning America’s Antonio Mora.

The American news landscape will provide a fascinating laboratory to run the Al Jazeera America experiment over the coming months and years. Can a wary American public be lured in by a straight, no-spin news product — assuming that Al Jazeera America successfully delivers it? Or will natural fear and distrust of a foreign-run news agency operating in our heartland be too much to overcome?

Only time will tell.

Robert Perez is vice president at CBR.

Skip the Skype Hype: Zimmerman trial fiasco offers lesson in adopting new technology

Ah, the downsides of technology. Just ask Seminole County Circuit Judge Debra Nelson. She was not amused when popups multiplied on the Skype screen in her courtroom, interrupting serious testimony in Central Florida’s summer blockbuster, the George Zimmerman trial.

Technology in the courtroom has long been a contentious issue. The judicial system historically has been slow to adopt any new technology that might be potentially intrusive. That reasoning is sound. Anything that can affect the outcome of a trial —  and therefore a defendant’s constitutionally guaranteed right to a fair trial — must be thoroughly vetted before being allowed into the courtroom.

Unfortunately, the rapid advent of communications technology in the 21st century coupled with the appeal of celebrity trials has accelerated acceptance of new and ever-more-intrusive technology into the courtroom.

That potential  bugaboo reared its ugly head last week when an attempt to have a witness testify via Skype turned the stately decorum Nelson’s courtroom into an unexpected and comical onscreen circus, in direct conflict with the tenor of the moment.

For anyone who missed it, just as prosecutors began questioning the witness, a pop up window from an outside caller filled part of the screen. No sooner had the witness cut off the call and clear the screen when another popped up. Soon the screen had two callers, then three, then four. Suffice it to say, the witness’ testimony and how it was viewed by jurors must have been impacted by the technology. 

Public relations professionals often are early adapters of new communications tools. We constantly are looking for new and creative ways to get our clients’ messages across to our target audiences. But we should take a lesson from the state’s Skype disaster in the Zimmerman trial. Before we get worked up about the next new Twitter, Facebook or Instagram, let’s vet the technology, counsel our clients on the potential down sides and think it through from every possible angle.

 Robert Perez is vice president at CBR.

Headlines speak volumes

Headlines speak volumes — and none so loudly as the nomenclature of the ongoing trial of George Zimmerman taking place near our Seminole County, Florida office.  At first the news media characterized it as a self-defense trial of Mr. Zimmerman.  Soon others worked to re-characterize the trial to focus on the deceased participant in the encounter, Trayvon Martin.  As a result, the headlines quickly changed to “the Trayvon Martin trial.”  Zimmerman’s defense has not appeared to have commented on this continual shift in the wording.  If nothing else, the shifting in headlines could reflect bias on behalf of the headline writers.  Surely naming a trial after the alleged victim could serve as a subliminal influence of a verdict.  Now the headlines are shifting again, back to the accused.  Welcome to the George Zimmerman nee Trayvon Martin nee George Zimmerman trial.  Such are the life and times in Central Florida this summer of ’13.  It’s a fascinating place in which to run a media relations firm.

June 21st – Summer Solstice – is a big day in the hallowed halls of CBR.  It’s our 29th anniversary as Florida’s leading independent strategic communications firm.  Happy Anniversary to the world’s greatest media strategists from your humble founder and CEO.

Lori Booker, APR