PR Pro of the Year Acceptance Speech, PRSA International Conference, Nov. 9, 2015, Atlanta, GA
Thank you Kathy for that lovely introduction. I am so honored to be here as a US Navy Veteran and a PR Practitioner and I can tell you I am humbled to represent our profession, our military and our veterans as I accept this honor.
Many people may not know it, but today, as we are gathered here, there’s one percent of our population who are watching our backs as they serve us with their military service in the Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force, Coast Guard or Merchant Marines. To those military members who are with us today, can you please stand for a moment to be recognized?
And in our country, they are followed by another group of people who have defended our freedoms. They are the seven percent of the population who have left military service and are now called our veterans. So to any of our veterans who are out there today who served in the Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force, Coast Guard or Merchant Marines, please stand for a moment so we may recognize you as well?
To this 8%, the other 92% say thank you for our freedoms. Your service allows us to assemble here today, to take part in this conference, to vote in our leadership venues and much more. We owe you a debt of gratitude.
As our society gathered together on Saturday for the Leadership Assembly, our CEO Joe Truncale spoke about seven PRSA Values. Of these values, which include:
- Respect for the Individual
- A Servant’s Heart
- Innovation, creativity and risk taking
- A commitment to personal and professional growth and
I want to take a moment to highlight a few that I know helped me during my 22 months of whistleblower reprisal when I was “banished to the basement” by senior leaders at the Phoenix VA Health Care System. In my opinion, these leaders didn’t share these values, as it was okay to reprise against a service disabled veteran.
But what seemed to be okay for them, wasn’t okay for me or Dr. Sam Foote, who led the charge to expose the VA Wait Time Scandal. For folks like Sam, myself and others what they were doing needed to be stopped. Someone had to take a stand to fight it. Someone had to help our veterans and that is what compelled Sam, myself and others to collaborate together and fight this battle against some pretty oppressing odds.
So of these PRSA values which are the ones I felt were the most prominent in our lives during this time? Let’s see if I can explain….
Did our fight take courage? One could say it did. Day after day, I had to go into the facility, where I once was the “face of the VA” and work in a position seven notches below my pay grade. Here I would help veterans, not with communications venues and media relations, but in checking out books, logging patients onto the library computers, faxing documents, providing support services such as making copies and handing out pens and pencils. I did so with a smile, while all the while living in a fog of depression. The depression came from knowing that there was so much good I could be doing in a communications realm and yet despite having the talent and ability to do so to face the inability to do so while dealing with verified reprisal by senior leaders.
Did it involve honesty? Yes, it did. According to the evidence, there was misleading information and as a result it was hindering the care to our nation’s veterans. We knew that we would have to share our facts, convince people to listen to us and in some cases to take a stand for ethics even if it meant standing alone.
Did it mean having integrity? Yes, it did. We were waging a battle with the most senior leaders at the Phoenix VA Medical Center. It was their word against ours, their word against the patients, and their word against those who were “taken out of their jobs”. It was interesting to see how the battle unfolded. Among the staff there were those who were my steadfast supporters and who would constantly pray for me. There were those who began to question my ethics and integrity because after all I was “taken out of my job”. And then there were those who willingly jumped on the reprisal bandwagon and constantly tried to throw us under the bus through their words, their efforts, and their abuse of leadership authority. For Sam it was the senior leaders trying to paint a picture of him as a “lazy doctor” to Congressional leaders. And to members of the media to portray him as one who “didn’t know the numbers” or who didn’t “grasp the real effect of what they were doing”. Really? In our books, delayed care is denied care and it needed to stop.
Although it was stopped then, what still bothers me that to this day, is that some of those leaders are on paid administrative leave, while others are still in their jobs. To VA and our veterans, I think this is a disgrace. So if you can join me in taking a stand, I hope you will by calling for #VAAccountability.
Did our efforts take a Servant’s Heart? We believe it did. We all know now that it was Dr. Foote who was telling the truth, and he paid a dear price for it. He had to retire from VA earlier than he had hoped. He had to throw rocks at an agency he adored. And he had to stand alone to expose the VA wait time scandal. It was during this time that I helped Sam with public relations advice and counsel and to put him in touch with staff on the House Veterans Affairs Committee. To them and to Congressman Jeff Miller, who truly broke the story about the horror of the waits and delays in veterans’ health care, we owe a debt of gratitude. We made it through by focusing on those who were supporting us–our families, our true friends, my legal team of Roger French, Josh Klinger and others–and my wonderful PRSA colleagues nationally, in Phoenix and through the Western District.
Yet perhaps most importantly it meant having faith in God. For you see, even though I didn’t always handle the situation as well as I would have liked–I drank, I cried, and I lived in a gray fog for many months– in looking back at it now I can honestly say that God had me where He needed me to be. And that is what matters the most.
As Phoenix VA Whistleblowers our lives will never be the same after being “banished to the basement” or for exposing the VA wait time scandal. But what I can say is this, I’m ready for the future whatever that may be and I pray now to let God be THE guide in my life.
I thank you for this honor, I’m truly humbled, I’m proud to be a member of PRSA and I am truly proud to serve our veterans.
Paula L. Pedene APR, Fellow PRSA
PRSA 2015 PR Professional of the Year