Saturday, February 22, 2014

The Sound Of Silence

"So, what do you think?"  I say after a prolonged explanation, to which I hear...Nothing, silence, static.  then after the most pregnant of pregnant pauses, so pregnant in fact, that you might describe it as, "with twins," pregnant, I pull my cell phone away from my ear, and squint questioningly into the screen, and return it, as I whisper, "hello?  "Oh yeees!" comes the plucky, perky response from Carrie Jenkins, the long time head of public relations for Brigham Young University.
Carrie Jenkins, BYU PR

I just asked Carrie to answer some questions about Kathyrn Skaggs,  a speaker scheduled to talk at The BYU Women's Conference.

Skaggs is the author of the wildly popular, and conversely, wildly panned blog, "A Well-Behaved Mormon Woman."  Skaggs recently penned a scorcher of a post, that claims, in no uncertain terms, that the Disney animated movie, "Frozen." is a shrill anthem shoving the gay agenda down the throats of American children.  She says the title song of the movie, "Let it go," is pretty gay.  Her controversial blog post has received praise in some circles, and ridicule in many others.  Kendall Wilcox, a documentary film maker and founder of the group, "Mormon's Building Bridges," wonders if Skaggs is the best person to speak at the conference given her controversial views on gays, and same-sex marriage, so I decided to ask Jenkins about it.
Kathyrn Skaggs, Blogger

"Weeell" says Jenkins, who has an amusing way of turning truncated words into rubber bands, "I juuuuuust think you should chaaaaat with her," she responds elastically.  "Yes, but she is speaking at your event." I suggest,  "Would you like to talk about why she was invited?" I say.  Again, I'm greeted with the uncomfortably loud echo of silence.  This time I'm determined to wait her out.  Which I do, for an agonizing 30 seconds, but, like most people ensconced in uncomfortable silence, I break and blurt, "What do you think?!"  "Oooooh," says Jenkins, "I just thiiiiiink you should taaaaaalk to her!"  She chimes happily into her landline.

Jenkins, is likely a hero in the public relations world.  She is supremely disciplined, she is never rattled no matter the controversy, and she is always, without exception, smiling.

Over the past 15 years, I've sat in her office on numerous occasions and watched as she smiles gently into the lens and masterfully and methodically chants hypnotically, her message for the camera.

I remember many years ago, asking her about an issue related to gay rights on BYU's campus.
"Weeeeeell, we certainly do respect aaaaaall students on campus, but that has aaaaaaalways been our policy," she repeated for the third time, with the corners of her mouth turned up gently towards the sky, and her eyes happily agreeing with her lips.

It would be the sentence she would parrot, 5 more times throughout our videotaped conversation.  No matter what the question might be, she returns eagerly to that singular, simple sentence, never once getting upset with the different iterations of essentially the same question I would pose.  

I could have asked: "Is the sky blue?"  and the response would have likely been: "Weeeeeeell, we certainly do respect aaaaaaall students buuuuuut,..."

Jenkins knows, the best way to avoid controversy is to remain silent, or if the controversy already has legs, to speak, but to stick to your guns.  She likely learned years ago, that if you try to give a fresh answer to the same question, you might say something you regret.  She also knows getting mad is a sure way to have a grimace, or snappy answer, end up edited into a finished piece, so that smile, that omnipresent smile, never fades. 

To her credit, Jenkins will, on many occasions, graciously invite you to her office on the BYU Campus to recite her formulaic answer to you.  That's pretty good, when you consider what her counterparts at many Federal agencies will do.  The FBI and Transportation Safety Administration for example,  appear to employ public information officers, who I believe are officers who neither talk to the public or provide any information.

In fact the spokesperson for the FBI doesn't even have a phone number to give the media.  Reporters are required to Email if they have questions.  Last week while acting on a tip about a case being worked on by the Salt Lake City office of the FBI, I wrote several Emails to the spokesperson, but as far as I can tell, she never even opened them.  

I have images in my mind of an office in the Salt Lake City FBI building marked PR, with the lights out, and cobwebs draped across a bank of dusty blinking and, buzzing, 50's style telephones.

The Email policy appears to have been enacted while the office was in the hands of a former reporter.   Reporters-turned-PR people are traditionally, in my opinion, the most difficult PR people with whom to work.

I'll never forget a former colleague of mine.  He was one of the toughest reporters in the business, he would seldom allow a PR "flack" to get away without answering a question.  He was particularly prickly when a public relations officer would chastise him for doing a story the PR guy didn't' like, "That's not a story," the media handler would say, to which my friend would always respond, "You don't get to name the stories."  Many years later, my friend went to work for a Utah politician.   Literally days after taking the job, I remember him bleating into his phone, as I discussed a controversial issue involving his boss, he said, without an ounce of irony, "that's not a story!" 

I was stunned into silence when he blurted that out, and I've learned over the years that Silence is something, you will often get from the office of public relations.   

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