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Octomom and My Friend, Joann.

Octomom's PR firm's resignation points out the need to reform public discourse.


I was not surprised to read that the PR firm representing the California mother of octuplets had resigned because of numerous death threats the principals had received. I've had similar, though not life-threatening, experiences in my own career and walking away has been a tempting option. On several occasions, opponents of clients I have represented have drawn my firm into the battle as "evidence" that my clients were guilty as they charge because they had engaged a PR firm aka "a spin doctor." (Using the word "spin" to describe the work of a legitimate public relations professional is akin to calling an accountant a "lying bean counter.") So when I read that my friend of some 20 years, Joann Killeen, was the target of these threats, my interest in learning more about the new mother of 14 children grew. 

Joann is a past president of the Public Relations Society of America; ethics is her middle name. She and her partner, Michael Furtney, took the mother's account on a pro bono basis. Both are accredited in public relations and members of the PRSA College of Fellows. So it was immediately apparent to me that I was not getting the whole story through the media accounts I'd seen and heard. I admit that until I had a personal interest in the story, I was leaning toward the prevailing wisdom that the mother is a selfish, irresponsible leach on society's precious resources and that the physician who "did this to her" ought to be drawn and quartered in a public square. But it didn't take much investigation to see another side to the story.

 

Joann, a grandmom and former professional photographer, took some photos of mom and kids, for which she was offered "lots of money." She signed over copyright to a photo agency so that if they were ever sold, the mother would get the proceeds. Joann and Michael turned away, among other enticements to stray from their standards, an offer from a news medium to pay-off their mortgages in exchange for identifying the sperm donor. Yet, for their good counsel and generous support, they received so many death threats among 88,000 E-mails that they had to hire personal security guards. When they were threatened with lawsuits and boycotts of their clients' products, they ultimately chose to resign.


There's a lesson here for all of us and, I say with all due pessimism, I doubt that we'll take it to heart. Our public debate has become course and cruel. We have forgotten that there are living, breathing human beings on the other end of our facile and fluid opinions about everyone and everything. The anonymity of blog posts and comments, forums and all other manner of "modern" public discourse has unleashed the basest and meanest of our humanity. We all have an opinion — a very, very strong opinion — about everything, about most of which we have precious few facts and even less expertise from which to form an opinion. But darned if won't express that opinion, no matter how ill-informed.


I'm reminded of the wisdom of the founding principle of Wikipedia, which points out the need to change the nature of our public dialogue: assume good faith. "Unless there is strong evidence to the contrary, assume that people who work on the project are trying to help it, not hurt it. If criticism is needed, discuss (the) actions but avoid accusing others of harmful motives without particularly strong evidence."
As Wikipedia asks, I will remind myself to "assume the presence of a belly-button" each time my lips are poised to opine.

 

Join me, won't you?

 

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