Frances Coleman's editorials and columns have been a favorite on Alabama's coast for more than three decades. After moving here from Louisiana, where she worked as a reporter for a daily paper, she began at The Foley Onlooker, where at the ripe old age of 25 she became editor of it and The Islander, the Onlooker's sister paper in Gulf Shores. In 1984 she moved to the Press-Register and worked her way from beat reporter to editorial page editor. Her column has been featured on the Sunday pages of the Press-Register for more than twenty years. It has also been featured in publications such as the Atlanta Constitution, the Houston Chronicle and The Washington Post. Frances has also been a contributor to National Public Radio and the BBC. Frances left the Press-Register in the fall of 2012. She writes and reports on a contract basis and speaks on a variety of topics, in addition to consulting and doing other cool stuff. She lives in Baldwin County, Alabama.
This Week's Column I want my nail file back – the nice metal one that cost me $5. And my nail clippers – several of them – that I sacrificed for our national security.
Not to mention the wee little pocketknife I used to carry in the bottom of my purse because you just never know when you might need one, plus the little corkscrew I used to carry for the same reason.
But most of all, I want my dignity back. That may be the hardest thing to find, crushed as it is beneath thousands and thousands of pounds of small knives, scissors, clippers and other sharp objects collected by our government from its citizens since the heinous terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Investigators deduced that terrorists used box-cutters or small knives that day to take over four commercial jets in midair and crash them into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania, killing nearly 3,000 people. Since then, the Transportation Security Administration has been shaking down passengers, wanding little old ladies and rifling through kids’ backpacks in an effort to keep Americans safe in the air. Now, though, the agency has announced that, starting April 25, it will allow passengers to carry knives on board as long as the blades are no more than 2.36 inches. TSA’s boss explained that the change will bring the United States into alignment with international rules and also allow airport screeners to focus on detecting bomb components. In addition to wishing I could retrieve all those items I donated to TSA, I have a few questions. For starters, if small blades weren’t safe then, why are they suddenly safe now? Or – just a thought here -- could it be that TSA officials knew they didn’t pose much of a danger but still wasted 12 years worth of time, effort and energy so the government would appear to be doing something about air safety? I saw 'United 93,' too, and it was good; but most of us are not as brave and bold as the passengers on Flight 93.
As for the explanation that TSA wants to bring the U.S. into line with international rules, pardon my provincialism, but we were the ones attacked on 9/11, after all. Shouldn’t we get to make the safety rules and let other countries fall in line behind us? Meanwhile, saying that airport screeners will now be able to focus on detecting bomb components implies that they haven’t been focusing on this in the past. What the heck have we been taking our shoes off and submitting to pat-downs for, then? And, finally, there’s the suggestion being made by some news outlets that with locked and reinforced cockpit doors, TSA doesn’t have to worry as much about what goes on in the cabins. Certainly, I am glad that our cockpits are now secure throughout every flight. But think of the havoc an unruly, drunk or deranged passenger with a small knife could cause, and the dangerous mayhem that might ensue. I saw “United 93,” too, and it was good; but most of us are not as brave and bold as the passengers on Flight 93, which terrorists crashed in Pennsylvania on 9/11. If small knives can be weapons, why compromise the safety of passengers even just a little? We Americans have gotten used to leaving our sharp objects at home when we fly. We’ve become accustomed to chunking the contents of our pockets into trays and having our handbags and briefcases x-rayed. It has been inconvenient at times, but we were told -- and we believed -- that it was for our safety. Now we can only conclude that either the ban on small knives has been a 12-year exercise in foolishness, or the TSA’s change of heart is going to be a brand-new exercise in foolishness. Neither scenario instills much confidence in the agency that’s supposed to be protecting us.
How to get rich on the papal conclave If only I hadn't gone with my heart and picked an American. If only my brother Stephen hadn't had a hunch about a particular man from Milan. If only certain renegade cardinals had prevailed in their assertion that, after all, the next pope didn't necessarily have to be Italian. I could've been rich. But instead, the cardinals who assembled in Rome that summer of 1963 behaved just as my father had predicted they would. Thus Giovanni Battista Montini of Milan became Pope Paul VI and I was busted. Clearly, my future did not lie in Vegas. Daddy's didn't either, by the way. He was simply the oldest and wisest Catholic in the room as he convened our family conclave. Laying the June 14 issue of Life magazine on the dining room table, Daddy explained to his Episcopalian wife and five Catholic children the process by which the cardinals would cast ballots until they reached a consensus. The idea, he said, was that they would be guided by the Holy Spirit. At that point, Mama mumbled something under her breath and Daddy, though pretending to ignore her, was forced to acknowledge the reality that in the church's nearly 2,000 years of existence, the Holy Spirit had almost always picked an Italian. Then, turning to Life's photo spread of the 82 "princes of the church," my father explained the rules of our little gathering: Each of us would place a quarter on the photo of the cardinal whom we believed would become the next pope. If one of the seven of us picked correctly, he or she would win the $1.75 pot; if no one picked correctly, the money would go in the collection basket the following Sunday. We were welcome to ask him questions, do some independent research or use any other method we chose, so long as we made our selections before the cardinals secluded themselves in the Sistine Chapel. Here's how I remember the bets going down: My sister, who was only 6, picked a man who looked friendly. At the ripe old age of 9, I decided it was time for an American pope. Daddy and my three older, wiser brothers picked from among the 29 Italian cardinals. Mama chose an Irishman. On June 19, a Wednesday, all bets were in and the real conclave began. Forty-eight hours later, on the sixth ballot, the cardinals picked their man and my weekly allowance was gone. Or so I thought. As it turned out, when the cardinals finished their business that Friday, Daddy did turn the jackpot over to our 13-year-old brother, Stephen; and then, on Saturday -- our allowance day -- he gave the rest of us children our usual 25 cents. The point of his exercise, we gratefully realized, had not been to roll his kids for their allowance. It had been to have some family fun while learning a little about our church, our world and how God works among us. What looked like a simple betting pool was a chance for us to talk about how people behave -- from a group of little children in Natchitoches, La., to a gathering of old men in Vatican City. In addition, it was an opportunity for our father to impress upon us that while we should always pray for God's guidance, we should also always remember that He leaves us free to screw up on our own. Daddy did not use the P word -- politics -- but in retrospect, I see that he was introducing us to the fact that politics plays a part in everything around us, including spiritual matters. Fifty years have gone by since my brother hit the jackpot, and another papal conclave approaches. My husband and I have not opened a family betting pool on Pope Benedict XVI's successor, however. With my parents and Stephen dead and our own children grown, we'd be looking at a 50-cent pot, which hardly seems worth the trouble. Besides, with my luck, this would be the year I followed Daddy's advice and picked an Italian -- at which time the cardinals would elect history's first American pope.
Frances Coleman is a freelance writer who lives in Baldwin County. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org and “like” her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/prfrances. Visit her website at www.francescoleman.com.And “like” her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/prfrances.
From 'Fun Ships' to 'The Good Ship Lollipoop'
A PR Lesson: Why "Public Relations" Pays,
And "Laying Low" Doesn't
Frances Coleman assists in corporate communications and media consulting. Her office is near Mobile, Ala.
Who can forget the image of Kathie Lee Gifford prancing down the deck belting out "Ain't we got fun" in those long-ago Carnival Cruise Lines ads?
What a different image of Carnival we saw in Mobile, Ala., Thursday night as a line of dirty, tired and weary bathrobe-clad travelers trudged from similar decks to waiting buses. After five days without air conditioning, hot meals and working toilets, the only song they burst into was "Sweet Home Alabama." Their ship, ironically named Triumph, was towed into a port which Carnival snubbed after only a few years of docking there. Rather than stories about the job the crew did, or the fact
that Mobile, Ala., proved a friendly and effective safe haven for
the ship, the Internet is full of scatological humor because the
reporting seemed to concentrate on nothing more than the lack of
toilets available after the power on the ship failed.
If you listen -- very carefully -- you can hear peeps and murmurs of the great job crew members did in a nasty situation. You might note that no one was hurt, and the captain and crew got every passenger off the ship in safety.
But you didn't hear much. Why? Because Carnival Cruise Lines was not aggressive enough in managing the information, and that's shocking. The management seemed unable to grasp what their PR professionals had to be telling them: Stay ahead of the story. Every reporter learns in the first six weeks of his or her career that the key to reporting is encouraging a reluctant source to tell his story. If not, these newly fledged reporters explain, the story will be told without that point of view. Smart management of the information here would have required the top man at Carnival, Micky Arison, to get as close to that ship as he could and direct the flow of information. The most experienced mariner in the company would be on hand, preferably in a tasteful but impressive uniform, to explain why it was not safe to try to take the passengers off the ship in helicopters or bring another ship alongside in the open Gulf of Mexico.
He could explain how the sewage system works, and how a lack of electricity meant a lack of refrigeration -- and a necessity of limited food offerings. He could also state the obvious, that no alcohol was served those cranky passengers after an early attempt at an open bar revealed how rare happy drunks become on a disabled cruise ship. He may have also reminded viewers that the Gulf of Mexico is a big body of water, and that ocean-going tugs can't tow an 893-foot ship at her cruising speed. He'd say that ships are complicated, explain how the power plant works, and say that replenishment or passenger transfer at sea was just not a safe option.
Given the satellite technology available, Carnival might have been able to place a spokesman right on the ship. Voice or video reports from him or her would have shown a level of real, immediate concern. While they were at it, the communications experts could have allowed passengers to communicate with family members, either with their own cellphones or with a company-organized system of "I'm OK" messages to family members ashore.
Exasperated questioners would also be reminded that the first responsibility of the captain is to ensure the safety of the passengers. Our gold-braid-encrusted expert could tell the world that nothing is more dangerous than a fire at sea, and that the crew of the Triumph extinguished the fire, saved the ship and protected their passengers. Maybe this professional mariner could have answered some of the silly questions asked by the talking/squawking heads at the news networks. This approach would have gotten Carnival ahead of the story on social and other media. In addition to embracing the new, the use of such a professional would have called on the very old idea that a ship's officer is responsible, in charge and knowledgeable. Don't get the idea that the spokesman can make a few remarks and head back to the pier. He's got to feed the 24-hour news beast along with everyone else. He's got to stay with the story until it's over. Instead we got pictures of Mr. Arison at a Miami Heat basketball game, giant-sized ring and all. And when the passengers who dressed for tropical Mexico were seen coming off the ship wrapped in bathrobes against the chill of the northern Gulf, Carnival tweeted: You can keep the bathrobe. Those were not smart moves. Carnival is an extremely sophisticated outfit. Few companies can boast a board of directors containing two knights (a former British First Sea Lord and a board member of Lloyds of London) and a fashion maven (the chief operating officer of New York & Co.). The public relations arm of Carnival is presumably a very professional and valued part of the company. It is interesting, however, to note that on a list of contacts for Carnival’s parent company’s brands (Aida, Carnival, Costa, Cunard, Holland America Line, P&O, Princess Cruises and Seabourn), only Carnival’s brand lacks the name of a public relations vice president or manager. But this is worse than sloppy technique. These missteps are about substance -- and not form. Lack of information -- or, worse, bad or foolish information -- over Twitter, Facebook and the old-fashioned Internet is just as bad as if those tweets and posts had been printed in a old-fashioned newspaper or chiseled on a rock. Public relations is about substance, not mere form. Bright smiles, "we're excited about it" psychobabble and plenty of peanuts and booze in the hospitality suite do not a public relations effort make. Apparently, the difficult piece of this puzzle is convincing management that a story can't be dealt with in quotes that tell "how concerned we are” about passengers or consumers, and actions that reveal that the real thinking of the company which believes "the less they know, the quicker they'll stop talking about this." All the PR horsepower in the world -- and Carnival has plenty -- can't overcome tone-deaf management. Always provide all the information the news media can properly understand. If you don't give them the facts, they will supply their own through speculation and guesswork. Pretty easy to (literally) Monday-morning quarterback, you say? Sure, with the understanding that while this is Monday morning for this event, it is a teachable moment to allow companies to prevent the next PR disaster.
Managing a crisis is about being prepared before the shooting starts. I heard of a CEO who said he didn't see how public relations would help him build one more product or make one more dime. Does he understand the lesson the rookie reporter tried to teach? Will he sit through a basketball game while his customers are miserable -- on worldwide television? In a situation like this, a company must make good decisions quickly. Doing so requires a deep understanding of how the media work, and how news organizations react to withheld information and respond to honest leadership and a factual and thoughtful presentation. Over the decades that I have been in the information business, I have always noted that the most successful people supply plenty of truthful and well-managed information, and marveled at how the worst self-inflicted public relations wounds are suffered by those who won't stay ahead of the story because they truly believe they can stop a story with silence. Carnival has learned a lesson which is still a mystery to any CEO who sees good information management as a waste of time. The tragedy of the Triumph is that an approach of "the more you stir it, the worse it stinks" turned the public mind away from a Fun Ship to a vessel now forever known as the "Ship of Stools."
Contact Frances at email@example.com. She is the former editorial page editor of the Mobile Press-Register, where she worked for 28 years.