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'Your Communicator' - June Issue

Produced by the Blue Ridge Chapter of the Public Relations Society of America.

Perhaps like many of you, the events of the past month have prompted me to re-examine my own racial biases. I’ll admit, just thinking about some of my past experiences was uncomfortable at best and shameful.

My early career living and working on the island of St. Kitts and the rich cultural experiences I had while working for UN agencies taught me a great deal about the value of diversity, but my inherent biases – ones I didn’t even recognize then – still came into play, like the time I took a midnight flight from Kuwait City to Islamabad.

Waiting in the business class lounge (talk about privilege), I observed a Pakistani woman leave her bags unattended for nearly an hour. She was nowhere to be found, and several westerners approached security officials with concerns. Just think of what the response would have been in a U.S. airport: security alert, evacuation, destruction of the bag? Given her brown skin, I suspect it wouldn’t have taken long to assume the worst.

Well, she came back, everyone calmed down a bit and we got ready to board our flight. My nerves were still frayed though. I was part of the global security team at the World Bank and had been trained to identify threats to my safety and the safety of others. Her actions set alarm bells off.

When I found my seat – the one next to hers – those alarm bells sounded even more loudly. She was nervously fiddling with something in her hand that kept clicking. My security colleagues had shown me what a pressure trigger was on a suicide vest, and that’s immediately where my mind went.

Despite my irrational fear, I introduced myself to her and asked how she was doing.

She was nervous, she said. Her hands held a counter (not a pressure trigger), something her therapist recommended to calm her anxieties about flying.

Over the next four hours, our conversation covered our families, our travels, our hopes for the world. After we landed, she invited me to dinner at her and her husband’s house. The dinner wasn’t to be, but our exchange will last me a lifetime.

It turns out I helped ease her nervousness about the flight – she didn’t use the counter at all once we started talking. And she reminded me what it means to be a human living in the world with other humans. Since that day, I call on that experience when I need to recognize my own biases and second-guess stereotypes.

As communicators, that’s our job: to do the second-guessing in the messages we develop. It’s also our job to meet our audiences where they are. That takes curiosity and a great willingness to listen and learn.

This seems like the right moment for a reminder to us all: Let’s recommit to being courageous communicators, and that means standing up for those around us in need.



One for the money.

Put Thursday, August 13 on your calendar now. Veteran PR leader Denise Hill, Assistant Professor of Strategic Communications at Elon University and a former vice president of communications for several global brands will present via WebEx. This webinar is free to chapter and PRSSA members. Admission for guests and students, who are not PRSSA members, is $10. An email invitation with details will go out soon. Stay tuned.

Two for the show.

Take advantage of these webinars, many of which are free or low cost.

Three to get ready.

Here are some quick ideas to help you grow professionally.

Four to go.

Each month, learn more about one of our members. Please consider submitting your profile for an upcoming feature. Here’s how it works. This month, we have a chance to reacquaint ourselves with long-time member and former Blue Ridge PRSA president Heidi Ketler, APR, Public Relations Strategist, NEWSource & Associates.

What was your best day as a communicator?

How about three best days, starting with the January day in 2006, when I got word that I passed the examination to become accredited in public relations. Another was the fall day in 2009, when I learned I won the Blue Ridge PRSA Gold Summit award in the new “Green” category, modest budget. Best of all, perhaps, was the summer 2010 day I was informed that Ferne G. Bonomi, APR, Fellow PRSA, (PRSA Central Iowa Chapter) won the national Patrick Jackson Award for Distinguished Service to PRSA. Ferne was instrumental in developing PRSA’s Accreditation in Public Relations (APR) credential. She wrote the APR Coach’s Guide, she developed the APR JumpStart sessions, and she was a chief facilitator for the online APR preparation course. It was immensely rewarding for me to have initiated support for her nomination, and written the successful nomination.

Have you ever won a contest or competition? Which one?

I was voted Virginia's Cox Conserves Hero in 2015 for my volunteer leadership on the Blue Ridge Parkway. It made me especially proud to have joined past Roanoke winners, some of whom helped shape, and supported my outdoor leadership interests. The $10,000 monetary award was used to purchase trail maintenance tools, including chain saws and weed trimmers, which enabled all volunteer chapters along the 469-mile Blue Ridge Parkway to better serve the National Park Service-Blue Ridge Parkway.

Not counting your partner or family members, who in your life has been the kindest to you? Why do you say that?

Gosh, so many kind people in my life recognized my potential, and encouraged and supported me. At seven years old, my dog Charlie and I were befriended by Mrs. Peg Bears, who was a constant source of kindness during my childhood. We first met Mrs. Bears at registration for a dog obedience class. Little did I know how important mentors would be in my professional life. I remember them with great affection, including Mr. Jim Woods, a banker whose connections helped me make the transition from newspaper reporter to advertising copywriter. I will always appreciate the mentorship of Patty Forrester, who was Sentara Health Director of Communications, to whom I reported for many years as a senior writer. I also appreciate the encouragement of Mary Prier, APR, my supervisor at Tidewater Builders Association, who encouraged me to pursue accreditation in public relations.

What’s the longest line you’ve ever stood in, and what was it for?

My husband and I were preparing to get married in Las Vegas on Valentine’s Day in 1994. The final task to obtain a marriage license took the better part of the day before. That line to the magistrate’s office wrapped around a full city block and then some. If you’ve seen the movie Honeymoon in Vegas, then you have seen The Chapel of the Bells, where we were married, and Black Elvis, who performed a spectacular show at our wedding celebration back home.

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