© 2006 Virginia Review, LLC

ELUCIDATIONS

Failure To Communicate: Part Duh

By Alyson L. Taylor-White

Editor’s note: In the last issue, we explored the benefits of good public communication, and the pitfalls of the alternative. This is a brief continuation of those thoughts.

Senator Walter A. Stosch gave VR Editor Alyson L. Taylor–White a tour of the new, temporary Senate Chamber in the Patrick Henry Office Building. Read more in the Cover Profile.

The conversation was short and to the point. A key figure in the local government’s leadership team was about to resign before being fired. This was the sort of public figure who knew the sins of others in the organization, and he was feared. It was about to get ugly. He threatened to tell all if not allowed to leave on his own design. He said he called us because we’d given him the benefit of the doubt even when we couldn’t trust what the administration was putting out there. We wished him well.

Within minutes after hanging up the phone with him, one of his superiors called and asked if we’d heard any news about that locality lately. His timing was really peculiar, so we asked what was up. He said he knew a certain individual might call us. He said he thought that individual would confide in us because he trusted us. Not wanting to betray a confidence we said we didn’t know what he was talking about and left it at that.

Within thirty minutes, our phone was ringing with county employees on the other end, one after another, calling to ask if we’d heard the news that the first guy who’d called us had gone ahead and quit.

Now, this wouldn’t be noteworthy except just one year before, almost to that day, the local government administration decreed that no one on staff was to call the press under any circumstances. It was to be a leak proof operation. At first, the ban worked. Then, by dribs and drabs, the calls started coming in. At first, people were honoring the information embargo sort of because they weren’t calling while at work. They’d call during their lunch break or on the way to work or home from work. Then, they just called when the urge struck. Around that time it struck a lot.

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Some time later, one of the top administrators asked us why employees continued to leak to the press even when told specifically not to do so. They asked why the press didn’t just behave themselves, and simply accept the version of the facts the top brass chose to dispense. They did not get it on so many levels, it became comical trying to deal with them, like a five year old child whose response to every explanation is “why?” You may find it interesting to know that person was actually one of the most frequent leakers to the local media.

Why does telling your employees not to talk to the press work? First Amendment issues aside, ordering people not to have a dialogue with the press is unenforceable. You cannot monitor them 24–7 on their own private time or lines. Imposing an information blackout creates a perception on the part of the public and the press that the organization has something to hide, and that makes whistle blowers’ dialing fingers itch.

Why do some administrators insist on stubbornly trying to sever relations between staff and the media? Indeed, a couple have made it such a trademark move that it has actually gotten them in hot water with entire communities, not just the board or council at whose pleasure they serve. Perhaps they are trying to keep control of the organization. Or there might be a very good reason to remain mum on a particular subject, say if an economic development prospect is deciding whether or not to locate there. And then, there have been those times when the perception turned out to be reality. The administration and/or elected officials were trying to hide something. Careers have been ruined, and elections have purged the system of those who were implicated or actually involved.

ANOTHER PERSPECTIVE

Communications at work are of concern for most organizations, but there is a new electronic twist on things. Have you ever gotten notice by mail or phone that someone was

  1. dumping you;
  2. firing you, or
  3. turning you down for a loan/job/part in a play/etc.?
Well, apparently the classic break up letter has a modern evil counterpart via email.

Not unlike dating, the work world is fraught with frustrations and insecurities. And yet, you say, who would in all clear conscience, break up with someone via email or text message? We’ll it is not right, but it is happening, and the work equivalent of that is also gaining popularity.

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The evening news recently featured a story about RadioShack. About 400 of their employees were informed that they were being laid off via email. Now anyone who has been dumped or fired knows full well that it is one of life’s most miserable events, but can you imagine the cold shock of getting the news in your email account? The message read “The workforce reduction notification is currently in progress. Unfortunately your position is one that has been eliminated.” RadioShack’s public information department justified this explaining that it was important to let as many people know about their job status as soon as possible. They were notified, given 30 minutes to digest the news, then sent to meet with “senior leaders” that allegedly involved top officials and human resources reps. They were then given containers and sent back to empty out their work spaces.

So, for those of you who may be saying at this moment, “Cool. That is the perfect way to get rid of Frank in Finance,” just how many ways this is not cool. While there are rules and ethics for dealing with the public, they also exist in dealing with employees.

Electronically terminating someone is not just wrong, it’s shameful. It also makes someone think there’s more to the story than just a streamlining of the organization. Warning staff that elimination notices will go out electronically is not any better. A group meeting is an appropriate setting, but not under the radar in someone’s email inbox. Handling things electronically instead of in person tells the public and your other employees who allegedly you value that you are more interested in the process of running an organization, and not the valuable contributions of those individuals who make it all possible. The people who work for you now and any potential employees in the future are going to see where your priorities lie, with the processes, not with the people. Believe it or not, governments were originally supposed to be in the people business.

ON A COMPLETELY DIFFERENT NOTE: WITCH WAY TO PUNGO?

This past July, Governor Tim Kaine had the bewitching task of “informally pardoning”* (the Washington Post’s term) the famous Witch of Pungo, Grace Sherwood. Some three centuries ago, Grace was a tough, single mother who had a knack for working with people and nature, and when the colonies north of us were going batty for witch trials, we had our own, slightly tamer incident in Virginia. She was an individualist who delivered babies, probably knew a lot about herbal cures, and by some accounts, wore mens clothing. A widow raising three sons in what was then part of Princess Anne County, and is now Virginia Beach, she was not afraid to take someone to court if she felt they had wronged her. Probably because of her skills with nature, not to mention, common sense, she may have possessed better agrarian and animal husbandry skills than her neighbors. As a result, when they did poorly and she prospered, animosities rose. In what was a dangerous but possibly handy barb to throw at the time, they accused her of being a witch who cursed their crops and livestock.

In her last case before the court, she was about 46 years old and stood accused of using witchcraft and causing a neighbor to miscarry her child. She was found guilty and sentenced to ducking, a way to devise if a person was truly a witch. The problem was if they were innocent, chances were very likely that they’d drown. If you’ve ever driven around Virginia Beach you’ve seen signs for Witch Duck Road. That’s named for Grace’s old neck of the woods. It’s off the Lynnhaven River.

In 1706, Luke Hill and his wife accused Grace of witchcraft because allegedly she’d caused them to lose their child in childbirth. The local court declined to pass judgement, failing to see a valid case. Then the case then went to the colony’s top attorney, who also refused to see a case in the evidence. Eventually the Princess Anne County officials ordered a trial by ducking, with Grace Sherwood’s consent. As fate would have it, she was a swimmer, and she floated which should have been the good news. However, since her “evils” were not absorbed by the consecrated water, and she floated, she was found guilty of witchcraft. She spent some time in jail, but was eventually set free and had her land restored to her by Governor Spotswood.

At Ferry Farm Plantation, a statue to Grace Sherwood is being planned, and fundraisers are selling bricks to be placed at the base of the monument. For more information, contact the Princess Anne County/Virginia Beach Historical Society at www.virginiabeachhistory.org.

WELCOME AND CONGRATULATIONS!

John Eagle, who has been our amazing IT editor in chief has taken a new career move and will be leaving us, sadly, at least for the moment. John, formerly the Hampton IT Director, has been appointed to serve as Hampton’s assistant city manager. He transformed our All About IT column into a collaborative effort among a delightful group of local government IT Directors, and we have all been the beneficiaries of it. Wendy Wickens, who is the Leesburg IT Director, will assume John’s role as All About It’s editor in chief, and we welcome her back as she has been one of those talented folks who volunteered to help John out with the occasional installment of the column. If you have any information technology questions, field them to Wendy, and she promises to try to answer them in a future column.

WE HAVE WINNERS!

Five readers quickly identified the “Guess Where and What” in the last issue as the Old Bell Tower on Capitol Square in Richmond. Some of you will remember that it has been used for many purposes over the years, including as the office of the Lieutenant Governor and headquarters for the Capitol Police. The five who won a free year’s subscription to the Virginia Review are Linwood Gregory, New Kent County Commonwealth’s Attorney; Trudy Russell, St. John’s Church Foundation Gift Shop Manager in Richmond; Stasil Middleton, Varina High School Senior, Henrico County; Peter D’Alema, Virginia Resources Authority Senior Financial Analyst in Richmond; and Peggy Papp, Virginia Senator Patsy Ticer’s legislative assistant in Alexandria. Congratulations winners & also those who correctly guessed, but weren’t in the top five. You know you are all winners because you read the Virginia Review!

*According to Governor Tim Kaine’s Press Secretary Kevin Hall, “‘Pardon’ is the word the media attached to our action. What we announced was the Governor was ‘restoring the good name’ of Ms. Sherwood. A pardon was not possible because so much of the historical record has been lost in the intervening years.”

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